Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fixing the Beans

I would like to be a better cook, but I don’t stand a chance. I am part of a family of phenomenal cooks, including my wife, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, and my daughters. When it comes to special family meal occasions, they do the heavy lifting and I am consigned to making the iced tea and rice (Uncle Ben and I are tight like that). I can make a few things, but at this point I don’t think I will ever achieve Paula Deen or Rachael Ray status.

There are even specialities within the family menu: my mother-in-law makes wonderful deviled eggs; my sister-in-law does incredible rolls and baked products; my younger daughter has a deft touch with a taco dip; my older daughter has green bean casserole (GBC) all tied up; and my wife fixes green beans that could serve as a meal by themselves.  Recently she ran into a time crunch before a family meal and asked me to snap the beans.  I was excited to be asked to be part of a signature dish. I cut the ends off the pile of beans and then broke them into pieces. I am here to report that beans, or at least the ones we used, do not have the strings they used to.  The agronomists have done some good work over the years.  Back in the day you ended up with a piled of bean strings as big as the pile of beans.  And they were tough enough to weave a rope that Indiana Jones could use.

While I was snapping the beans I found I soon fell into a rhythm that was comfortable and familiar.  Then I remembered all the times my mother asked me to help her string beans. It was not my favorite chore–in fact, I didn’t have any favorite chores since I was a lazy slug and preferred reading and watching television. So I would reluctantly string the beans, missing enough that my mom had to go back through then.  When I broke them up, I broke them into large pieces that would take less time.  Again, she had to redo them.  It’s a wonder she asked me to help.  Maybe she was thinking I would catch on.  I’m pleased to report that I did, decades later, and can break beans with the best of them.

Sometimes we learn from our parents in ways we’re not even aware of later on. My love of poetry and music came from my mother.  She would walk around the house reciting poems she had memorized, Tennyson and Browning mostly, and I ended up majoring in English (with more poetry classes than anything) and teaching English for over 30 years. She also sang as she worked in the house or the garden, and music has been an important part of my life from the days of teaching myself to play guitar to currently  being in four musical groups. She was also an inveterate reader, as I am.

Of course, not all of her interests took.  She was a master gardener, and I can’t make anything grow. Gardening always seemed like hard work to me.  I know, there are rewards but I can’t seem to get to them.  A number of years ago I told her I was considering putting in a vegetable garden.  She looked at me and said, “Just go to the farmers’ market instead.”  She knew.

I never thanked my mother as such for these interests that she gave me, but I believe she understood without my saying how much they meant to me. She wasn’t much on expression through words or overt recognition.  She didn’t care at all for Mother’s Day, thinking it was a false and extravagant occasion.  She said, “Everyone is nice to their mothers on Mother’s Day and mean to them the rest of the year.” I told her I would be mean to her on Mother’s Day and nice to her the rest of the year. I always saw her then or if I couldn’t, I’d call her and tell her I was doing so because that’s what you were supposed to do on Mother’s Day.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I hope you will express your thanks to your mother for all she has done for you if you are able.  If you do not have a good relationship with your mother, I hope there was someone who acted as a mother for you. If you are unable to tell your mother in person, I hope your memories of her are good and strong. And to all you moms and all you women who have acted as moms, thank you.  

Monday, July 30, 2012

Things I Don't Know

Actually, this should be entitled, "Things I Didn't Know But That I Know Now and Was Surprised to Learn," but that's too long and not as catchy as the actual title. Anyhow, on to the things.

The scientific name of the American bison is Bison Bison. You'd think that with all the scientific names out there that they could come up with two different ones, but they didn't. Must have been vacation week at the scientific names office. I have a suggestion, though: Bison Burger. That name would remind everyone of the great herds of buffalo that roamed the plains and also of how delicious they are served on a bun with your favorite condiments. I offer this suggestion freely without any expectation of profit or recompense.

Stil, in the animal kingdom, polar bears are not white. Their fur is clear and looks white because of the way it refracts light. It would be strange if they appeared to be clear (would we call them glass bears then?), but that would help them hide from predators, if there are any predators willing to take on a polar bear. I know I am not. They appear to be peaceful creatures, and I hope their environment doesn't melt. And come to think of it, appearing to be white works against the ice floes. That much is clear (ha ha).

Next, I learned recently that there was a proposal to add the likeness of Susan B. Anthony to Mount Rushmore. It didn't happen because they didn't have the money to complete the sculpture. So they put her on a dollar coin instead. Which is better? I can't decide.

It is actually possible to see the minute hand move on a floor-sized grandfather clock. Ours moves 1/32 of an inch around the dial with each tick of the pendulum. Hours of fun to watch!

The last thing I learned that I didn't know before is a point of maritime law. When someone dives on a shipwreck to recover its cargo, the salvager must first sue the shipwreck to obtain legal rights to the contents of the wreck. It would seem bad enough to be a shipwreck, but being sued by a salvager would seem to be adding insult to injury. However, that's the law, so please don't go taking stuff from a shipwreck without filing suit first. I just know you will.

That's about all for this time. I'll revisit the topic when I learn some more things I don't know. Since there's a lot I don't know, this series could go on for a long time. In the meantime, you can come up with some things you don't know. Good luck!

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Continuing No Shame Poetry Series Presents "Back Here on Earth"

Before we get to our regularly scheduled shameless poetry post, we here at the Biscuit City Studios want to welcome Bill Mustin of Signarama in Woodbridge as sponsor of the glass enclosed Observation Post. Welcome Bill! Readers may check out his website at Bill@signarama-Woodbridge/VA.com. Bill and his company made up the new Write by the Rails banner. Look for it at a book event near you! And now to our poem!

Back Here on Earth

5 AM

The moon is a white-hot crescent
Tangled in black reticulated terminal tree limbs
As I walk barefoot down the stone cold driveway
To retrieve the paper in its plastic bag.
All around in a panoramic aural display
Unseen birds are calling, filling
These nether regions with their song.

--Dan Verner

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Advice for Writers--Follow the Fingers Where They Go

Gordon Lightfoot has a old song that I don't care too much for. It's "The Minstrel of the Dawn" where he goes on about being a minstrel. I think he doesn't need to sing about it since he is obviously a singer and writer of mainly good songs ("Knotty Pine" is another song I don't like. Sample lyric: "She's my  knotty pine; she bleeds turpentine..." My reaction is, dude, get your gf to the ER pronto!). But anyhow, one of the lyrics to "Minstrel of the Dawn" is "Listen to the pictures flow and follow the fingers where they go."

I was thinking of these words as I was working on my novel this week. I understood the lyrics because my fingers are just following what the characters do. I have heard writers say that the characters take on a life of their own and that the world of the novel becomes as real as this world. And they do.

Stephen King relates that he receives requests from people on death row and people with terminal illnesses that he tell them what is in the Dark Tower of that series. He says he does not know what is in the Tower and will not until the story gets to that point.

That makes sense to me.

The protagonist of my novel, Otto Kerchner, sometimes does not do what I expect him to. In one chapter, he is bullied at lunch by a big guy. I thought Otto was going to sit there and take it. Unexpectedly, he goads the other boy into taking a swing at him (by insulting his momma) and when he does, Otto pops him in  the nose. That earns him a trip to the principal's office, but I think it was worth it. I had students like Otto who finally stood up to bullies and the school and world are better for their courage.

So, fellow writers, "follow the fingers where they go." You may be surprised where you end up.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fobbing It Off (For Real this Time)

We are not what anyone would call early adopters. We are what most anyone would call, well, thrifty. So, we buy used cars and runs them until they fall apart. The classic example is the 1978 Impala we bought when Amy was four months old. She learned to drive on the car and I think we gave it to someone when she was in college. Becky drives a 1999 Avalon with 105,000 miles on it. Just getting broken in.

As a result of this thriftiness, our cars lag behind the technological curve. Yes, they have self-starters, but power door locks were a revelation to us when they came on the Impala. The Avalon unlocks all four doors from the front door lock if you turn the key clockwise once or twice. I thought this was the coolest thing I had ever seen until I got two cars with key fobs. I just press a button and the doors open. I love this so much I try to open Becky's car with one of the fobs. I even try to open our front door with the car key fobs. They don't work, but I can always hope.

So, change is hard to get used to, but once you're used to it, it's hard to go back.

Gee, I didn't have as much to say about that as I thought I would.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Catchers in the Rye

Catchers in the Rye

I have seen a number of articles recently and listened to several reports about the epidemic of childhood obesity plaguing our nation. These are children who are not just chubby or plump or stout—they are obese, and their weight is causing them to have complications now and will cause diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.

Most medical experts point to the same causes for obesity in children that they do in adults—lack of exercise (television and video games) and too much processed food. 

It’s not just a problem for the kids, although it’s more upsetting because they have less responsibility for how much they exercise or how they eat.  It didn’t always used to be this way, though.

Back when I was a lad, all of us were almost invariably thin little urchins. This was because unless we were in school or eating or asleep we were outside, usually running around tearing things up.  This is why my mother (among others) wanted us outside.  If we stayed inside we tore the place up.  We didn’t intend to—we just had a lot of energy and were basically clumsy ( I still am). If someone were inside for long periods of time they were either sick or they had really ticked their parents off and weren’t allowed out to play.  Staying inside was a punishment. Kids begged to go outside.  Of course (hang on to your hats, kids) we only had four television stations we could get on a black-and-white set. And so we were outside most of the time, for extended periods.  My parents wanted to know where I was going and told me when to be back, generally in time for meals.  Although there were probably perverts and child molesters roaming around then, I think there must have been fewer of them. Being outside was considered safe.  Of course, we had the whole neighborhood watching us at all times.  One time my buddies and I came across a book of matches (which wisely we were not allowed to have otherwise).  We amused ourselves for a while by setting small tufts of dry grass on fire and after we stomped them out went home because we were out of matches.  I hadn’t even gotten in the front door when my mother met me wanting to know what I thought I was doing setting fires in a vacant lot.  One of the neighbors had seen us and called her. So, we had a lot of friendly eyes watching us.  We didn’t think they were friendly on occasions such as our short-lived career as junior arsonists, but they were.

I remember one memorable outing I have written about in this space that  my brother and I took on our bicycles.  We were peeved at our parents so we decided we would run away.  I took a can of pork and beans from the kitchen and we set out, headed south from Fairfax to wherever the road took us (probably Clifton although we never got anywhere near it). The road went from paved to gravel to dirt and then turned into a path through the dense woods.  We came upon a clearing, and there were old rusted train tracks.  Since we were tired, we sat down, opened our beans and took turns eating them with sticks since we had neglected to bring forks.  It occurred to me that this would be a perfect place to live in a boxcar in the woods.  Under the influence of the Boxcar Children books, I imagined that as an ideal existence.  As I recall the books, the children who lived in a boxcar in the woods had no parents in evidence and that sounded pretty good to both of us. The sun set, and as the temperature dropped, we decided it would be wise to return home to a hot meal.  I vowed to find a boxcar to live in and have it moved there and also to learn how to cook beyond opening a can. I never did locate a boxcar or live in it in the woods. I did learn how to cook, after a fashion, many years later.

It’s entirely too bad that the world has changed and become a more dangerous place so that kids can’t run free (or amok) as we once did. I don’t know what to do to change that. I find myself thinking of the passage in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in which Holden Caulfield, thinking about the innocence of his sister Phoebe, imagines the children of the world playing in a large field of rye next to a cliff. He would catch them before they fell off the cliff, becoming “the catcher in the rye.” I wish we had big fields of rye or oats or barley where kids could play without worry. I know, we have organized sports for children, but it’s not the same. Although my children are far past the age where they want to run around in fields, I’d volunteer to take a turn watching the other children play outside without fear. They deserve it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Story of Two Theaters

It has happened again.

A deranged young man has gone into a public place, a theater in Colorado this time, and started shooting. Dozens of people died or were wounded. Hundreds of family members and friends are left to mourn.

I was shocked and sad. I had a sense of deja vu. It's all too familiar. The initial reports, the continuing news coverage, the search for reasons, the profiles of those who died, the discussions about how to prevent such incidents from happening again.

And yet they keep happening.

In the meantime, a community is left to mourn, to pick up the pieces, to find a way forward.

I wanted to spend this weekend in quiet reflection. We decided to go to a local production of Man of La Mancha done by a theater group from the local Catholic church. Our Chorale accompanist was in it, as was his wife. They are both incredible musicians and singers.

It was just what I needed. The production had no weak elements. Everything was exceptionally well done, from the set to the staging, the acting and singing, costumes, lighting, direction, and orchestra. One hundred-twenty-nine members of the community gave us a gift, and it was just what we needed this sad weekend.

The message of the musical could not have been more appropriate. The Cervantes/ Don Quixote character remarks that he is on a quest "to bring some measure of grace to the world." And indeed the message of the place is that grace, idealism and love can transform the worst of circumstances.

And so, thank you and congratulations to the Upper Room Theater Ministry of All Saints Catholic Church.

In a theater in Aurora, Colorado this past Friday, a single individual tore the heart our of a community.

In a gym transformed into a theater not a mile from where I sit, a group of talented people gave of themselves to bring something of grace and beauty to their community.

My prayer is that the same grace and love this community experienced recently may help in the healing of the community in Colorado.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Continuing No Shame Poetry Series Presents "Happy Landings"

Happy Landings

I am thinking of you tonight, Amelia Earhart
Because, frankly, so many of us can’t stop thinking about you
And I know you’re out there, somewhere,

You continue to tease us with
Pictures of your shy smile
Your pure countenance and
Little bits of your aircraft left behind
In the Pacific
Cosmetic bottles and cases
“Typical of the 1930’s” as careful reports say.

Come on! Come out!
Walk around any corner of any city in the U.S.A.
And I’ll have a news crew there to record your arrival.

Come back to us, First Lady of the Air.
We need you.

--Dan Verner

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Advice for Writers--The Right Metaphor

Last week, I was looking with writer friend at a draft of a story she had written. It was typical of her writing--complex, deep and beautifully crafted, but she wanted me to cast my English teacher eye over it and see what I could find. I couldn't find much, but her use of "needle in a haystack" immediately struck me as out of keeping with beauty and grace of the piece.

I knew what had happened. She was writing along and needed some figure of speech to convey finding something rare,something that was difficult to come by. Still, the metaphor stuck out like a sore thumb (ha ha) (I know, that was a simile. Close enough.) and did not suit the warm and organic subject and tone, which was about nature and our place in it. The writing also had a motif of gold running through it.

To my way of thinking, metaphors need to be as original as we can make them, consonant with the tone of the writing and possessing a certain resonance. The needle didn't work on all three counts.

Later on, I thought of the Pearl of Great Price from the New Testament parable as a less used metaphor and one that carried forward the motif of treasure, but I didn't like the hardness of the pearl, and the color didn't go with anything else. I emailed my friend anyhow, and she replied, writing that she had settled on a four-leaf clover as the right figure of speech, and it was. It was original, fit the warm and organic tone and resonated with the treasure and nature motif. It was a winner.

All this seems like a lot of angst over a phrase, but I would suggest that such attention to a word or phrase or sentence is what makes our writing sing. In this case, two experienced writers wrestled with coming up with exactly the right figure, and it paid off.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Technology and Society-- Fobbing It Off

Although technology fascinates me, and especially its role in changing society, I am what is called a "late adopter," i.e., I hang on to forms of technology long after everyone else has moved on. I do eventually get around to adopting the new forms, but it takes me a while. I want to see a scene in a movie last week, and found I had it on videotape. Then I was too lazy to fast forward it to the pertinent scene, and then realized I could probably find it on You Tube. I did, and everything turned out well. It's probably sloth that drives me to change. Not exactly the classic protestant ethic, but it works for me.

I had been taking sermon notes in a notebook with a pen. I switched to a note pad for a while but I can't keyboard fast enough for notes--I'm a bad typist anyhow, and the keyboard on the note pad is 80% normal size, which lead to more mistakes. Then I took the laptop to take notes. I'm in choir and I look funny dragging a laptop into the choir loft. That and it is something else to carry. I'm also clumsy, so I tend to smack it into one of my fellow tenors, who are gracious but who could probably do without being assaulted by a Toshiba Satellite. So I went back to the notebook and pen.

This past Sunday, I was sitting in the pew before the service and took out my iPhone to silence the ringer. Then it occurred to me that I could take notes on the notepad app of the iPhone. It worked like a charm! The virtual keyboard is small, but it has auto-correct (making for many amusing nearly correct words) and has gotten easier to type on with practice. Plus I don't have to lug around a laptop or netbook, thereby complying with the general principle of technological change engendered by sloth. I put the phone in one of my many pockets (attired for Sunday in a suit I have nine pockets and sometimes misplace sunglasses for months in one of them).

I was going to write about car fobs and how they have changed my life, but I seemed to have gotten sidetracked. Imagine that. So, car fobs next week, maybe, unless I get distracted again. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Old Guys

Let me make clear from the beginning that the term “old guys” is one of affection and one I feel I can use since I am about ten years away from being an old guy myself. By that time I will be half an inch shorter (I have been shrinking at the rate of ½ inch a year ever since I turned 40—if I live to be 420  I will disappear entirely). Becoming an old guy pretty well takes care of itself but I’m not sure I will be anywhere as cool as the old guys I know.

Most of these fellows went through the Great Depression and World War II. At the end of the war, many of them were in their early twenties, and they came back, got jobs, married, bought houses, started families.  They didn’t say much about what they had been through, but if you talk to them about it now, they felt that the worst times were behind them, that whatever came along after that they would handle it, and handle it they did. They supported the Boomer generation, which took some doing (I am one of those—I know), and worked hard at their jobs.  They frequently stayed with the same job for decades.  Now most of them are retired but you still see them out doing things, maintaining their houses and yards, sitting in shopping malls, getting together with other old guys for breakfast.  One old fellow used to stand on a corner near us and wave at passing traffic. I haven’t seen him for a while, but I always waved back. There is a kind of old guy wave that I can’t emulate.  It is casual, a full arm extension with a flick of the wrist like a salute.  Maybe I’ll get it by the end of the decade.

Old guys are good with mechanical things.  They can fix almost anything, but they came along before the computer revolution so they don’t do as well with electronics although some of them email their grandchildren.  My dad is a typical old guy.  He’s 87 now and lives in a assisted living center where he likes the food and is entertained by the other residents. He went through the Depression and World War II, made his living using his hands, retired and farmed.  About ten years ago my mother started showing signs of dementia.  Except for a few brief stays in a nursing home and hospital, he took care of her, in the last few years with the help of a wonderful caregiver, until she died about five years ago. He has gone through all these situations including his own hospitalizations with determination and an incredible sense of humor.  He managed to teach me a few things about working with my hands although I am nowhere as good as he was.  Tremors prevent him from using his hands the way he used to so I find myself doing the work when it is to be done and he is my helper, just as I was his helper for so many years.  And I am still learning from him. I was trying to get a plug out of an opening using a hammer recently.  “Turn the hammer sideways,” he told me, and it worked.

Old guys don’t mind sharing their expertise.  I have asked them about installing doors (make sure the opening is big enough) and finishing wood (get it as smooth as you can and then apply a number of light coats of finish). They have always come through for me.

I hope you will take any opportunity you have to thank the old guys you know who were veterans for the incredible service to our country, and for the way they made this nation a better place through their decency and hard word. I hope you will include in that number the ladies of a certain age (I would never call them “old”) who also contributed in World War II either by direct service or by efforts on the home front and then by raising families and contributing to a safe and stable society.  Saying thank-you to these people has an urgency about it since they are leaving us at the rate of 1000 people a day.

I also hope you will take the time to thank the veterans of any age, including those presently serving in our wars or anywhere in the world.  Include their families, if you will, because they suffer and sacrifice as well.  May we remember and be grateful for old guys and everyone else.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Now, don't worry a bit: I'm not going to post a video of me singing the theme song (and the endlessly repeated melody) of Cats. Now, I'm a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber--I just love Evita and Phantom of the Opera--but Cats, forgive me, is a one tune dog. When it was popular, people who saw it said, "Oh, the actors act just like cats on stage. They make you forget they're people."

Then we saw it and my reply to that observation was, "No, they don't. They look like people in cat suits trying to act like cats and succeeding only  in looking like people in cat suits acting acting like cats." Does that make sense. Anyhow, it didn't work for me.

Anyhow, this post is about memory and about how I have none. Nil. Zip. Nada. Zero. I forget what I've gone to the store to get if it's more than two items and I don't write them down. I forget what I came into a room to do. I don't remember what I went upstairs to find. Names are the worse, and that little occurrence usually happens at church when I go to make an introduction and can't remember the name of a friend I've known for decades to introduce them to someone I've just met. That's embarrassing. Most of the time my former long-time friend will bail me out by introducing him or herself. Occasionally, though, even a long time friend will leave me twisting in  the wind of my own making.

I went to introduce a lady I've known for a long time to someone and could not think of her name. I said, "Jane, I'd like to introduce you to..." and my mind went blank. My friend looked coolly at me and said, "If you can't remember my name, I'm not going to help you." AWK-ward, yes. After about thirty seconds I thought of her name and realized how long thirty seconds can be when you're standing there waiting for something to happen. Once I remembered who she was, the rest of the introduction went smoothly, and I believe my friend has forgiven me for my faux pas.

I understand, talking with people in a certain, uh, age bracket, that this is a rather common phenomenon, but common or not, it's bothersome. I think I came upon this truth when I realized that most of my everyday activities are devoted to doing things that help me to remember things. I put things in front of the door that I need to take some place. This doesn't always work when I step over them. I put things in the car ahead of time so they will go with me. Unfortunately, I have two cars that I use and I have to remember which object is in which car for this to work. I even keep three calendars. I have a small paper calendar I keep at my desk, a small pocket calendar I keep, strangely enough, in my pocket, and lately I've started keeping track of events on my iPhone. I'm a member of the digital bridge generation, though, so I don't completely trust digital devices. Hence the paper calendars.

My calendars usually are the worse for wear. I used to write down things I didn't want to forget in a cool little paper covered Moleskine notebook but after a while living in my pocket, it looked like what a friend described as a wad of napkins. Now I rely on what Alyssa calls squirrelly scraps of paper. I sometimes transfer these notes to notebooks, one for regular writing ideas and one for choir devotional ideas. That doesn't mean that I remember what these notes mean when I go back to look at them. More's the pity, I know.

In the Middle Ages, scholars relied on what were called houses and cathedrals of memory. They pictured objects in the structure which helped them remember thousands of things or ideas/ For example, if they wanted to remember the medieval curriculum, they might picture a knight studying a book. Night study=astronomy. I think it's easier just to remember astronomy, myself, but then I don't live in the Middle Ages. And I can't remember thousands of items, either.

I have tried relying on my memory more, doing things like moving my watch to my left wrist. Later, though, I'll think, "Why is my watch on my left wrist?" so that doesn't always work. Mnemonic devices are useful for things like the colors of the spectrum in order (ROY G. BIV), which are about all the colors I know anyhow. Becky worked out a homemade mnemonic for me to remember what we get when we order pizza. It's MOPS--mushroom, onion, pepperoni and sausage. And I pretty well have Becky's preference for a Subway sandwich memorized.

And so, when it comes to memory, I'm a work in progress. If I can remember what that means.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Continuing No Shame Poetry Series Presents "Canopy"

The primordial forests
That once covered this continent
East of the Mississippi
Were cut down
And made into paper
Which is now in a pile
On my desk

All of it.

--Dan Verner

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Advice for Writers--Yet Another Metaphor for Writing

This metaphor doesn't come from me, but rather from Elizabeth Haugen, the pastor of Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston. She compare writing to running a marathon.

I was a runner, once, in my twenties and thirties, although walking for exercise is now more my style. I actually ran in a race, a 10K in which I came in dead last. I was never fast, but I was tenacious.

Enjoy Elizabeth's post, "Like Running a Marathon...Writing a Book," at http://preacherontheplaza.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/like-running-a-marathon-writing-a-book/

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Yes, yes, I know I said I was going to write on technology and society on Wednesdays, but sometimes things come up. And I lied.

OK, try this. I am presently going through a list of Nine Things that Will Disappear in (Your, My, Our) Lifetime(s). So far I have reflected on checks and privacy (I think). Anyhow, I came across another list so this post is related in that it pertains to a list. So I hope that makes a difference. If you have complaints, please send them to:

Harrison Bergeron, Blogmaster
Biscuit City Productions
Biscuit City VA 20007.3

The list is from a Kiplinger magazine article on "Seven Things Worth Splurging On." Here's a link if you don't believe that I am not making this up. And it has pictures in case you have never seen something like a watch: http://money.msn.com/shopping-deals/7-things-worth-splurging-on-kiplinger.aspx?cp-documentid=250086734

(An aside here: Isn't "splurge" a funny word? I think so. I hope you do, too.)

So, the seven things are:

1. A kitchen renovation. Agreed. We had ours redone about three years ago and we love it love it love it. Sometimes I walk into the kitchen and think I'm in another house. Then I forget what I came in for. Usually, it's to eat something, so that narrows it down.

2. Apple stock. $610 a share. If I invested directly in the stock market, maybe. But we have our investments through an investment counselor. I have no idea what they are. We meet with him and he shows us colorful graphs and charts, and I still have no idea what is going on. A financial genius I am not, other than to tell you, "Buy low, sell high." There. Who says blogs are useless?

3. Non-Stop Flights. It says they save time and money. No duh. You can fly directly to Atlanta in about an hour and a half or you can take a two-stop through Cleveland and Orlando and take all day. Your choice, Sparky.

4.  A Digital SLR Camera. Sure. Why not? I take lousy pictures, and I'm sure they would be lousy if I used said digital SLR camera or my Kodak Instamatic.

5. An American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card. C'mon now. I have so many credit cards now I'm not even sure what they are. I need another one about like a hole in the head, Gold Rewards or Golden Calf or whatever.

6. A Cartier Watch worth $4650. No, thanks. I like my $29.95 Timex. The Cartier is supposed to last a lifetime. I calculate I can by 155 Timexes the price of one Cartier. If the Timex lasts only a year (and they last four or five years), I would be 219 years old by the time I made up the price of the Cartier.

7. Prix Fixe Fine Dining. Sure would, if I could find a place within 200 miles of where I live that offers such a thing. In the meantime, we have coupons for Red, Hot and Blue.

I know, I sound  like a cheapskate. I am. And I have my own indulgences, including guitars that are worth the equivalent of three Cartier watches. But you can't play "Stairway to Heaven" on a watch. I've tried and it doesn't work. 

But you indulge yourself however you want. You work hard, and you've earned it.

The Biscuit City Chronicles--Digging to China

I saw a while back that Google Earth had added a new feature that allows users to dig a virtual hole from any spot on earth and see where they would come out on the other side. This reminded me of a popular belief when we were kids that if you dug a hole straight through the earth, you’d end up in China. Somehow, this benighted idea included everyone and everything being upside down on the other side of the earth.  

Now, I don’t think we were especially stupid or even in the magical stage of cognitive development, but a few minutes with a globe and recall of the facts of gravity would have shown us just how dumb these ideas were.  And we weren’t little kids at the time. I remember being about ten years old and thinking this.
For the record, if we were to dig straight through the earth from this location, we’d end up in the ocean somewhere south-south-west of Australia. To come up in China, you’d have to start in Argentina. Not that we let facts get in our way.

One of our favorite places to play was a large vacant lot a couple of houses down from my house.  We met there and played all kinds of games, mostly involving throwing things at each other.  And of course at some point we decided to dig to China. This quest was made more difficult since none of us had a shovel and had no chance of borrowing one from a tool shed and carrying it down the street for several blocks. Kids couldn’t get away with anything in those days.  If our parents didn’t see us, a neighbor would, and come out, take the shovel away and tell our parents we were up to no good.  When we got home, our parents would grill us about why we had a shovel and what we were going to do with it.  The conversation would go something like this:

Parent: Mrs. Smith said she saw you walking down the street with a shovel this afternoon.

Kid: (under breath) Well, she’s a nosy old bat, isn’t she?

Parent: Excuse me?

Kid: I said, it was just like that…

Parent: What were you going to do with a  shovel?

Kid: Dig a hole.

Parent: Why?

Kid: (under breath) We wanted to dig down to China.

Parent: Where?

Kid: China.

Parent: Well, since you have so much energy, you can dig the weeds in the garden…

So, knowing how this would play out, we were reduced to using a couple of old serving spoons we had found for our excavation. We started digging in the rock hard clay soil characteristic of this area under a blazing sun and actually worked for a couple of hours.  By that time we had a hole about a foot and a half in diameter and six inches deep. I thought it was quite an accomplishment for a couple of kids with spoons. By then it was time to eat, and somehow we never got back to our hole to China.

I’m sure there were other absurd beliefs that we cherished, but about the only other one I can recall is the idea that, given the right kind of cape, I could fly like Superman.  I adopted the usual expedient of tying a bath towel around my neck and jumping off the front porch.  I didn’t achieve anything near flight. I was discouraged from this feat until I saw (on the back of a carrot bag, strangely enough) an ad for a “real flying cape.” This was apparently before the days of truth in advertising. I sent off my quarter and a few weeks later received in the mail a cape made of thin plastic that would have been red if it had been thick enough. I gleefully tied it around my neck and climbed to the top of our shed in the back yard.  Flight was just an instant away. I could fly to China!  No need to put all that effort into digging!  I took a deep breath and launched myself into the air and landed on my feet with a thud.  It really hurt and although I was on the short side to begin with, I was even shorter after my jump.  I threw the cape down in disgust and gave up on the idea of trying to fly.

Maybe we as kids had a kind of underlying interest in other cultures and took China as someplace exotic and different. We were fed a steady diet of adventure stories—tales about Admiral Byrd and Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart and Chuck Yeager—and I believe we saw going to China as an adventure.  I was thinking of digging to China the other day when it occurred to me that in this area we are surrounded by people from all over the world. So we don’t have to dig to China.  China has come to us.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Story of a Patriot, Story of a Teacher

We were saddened this past week to learn of the deaths of two friends, Gayden Morrill, who lived in Williamsburg, and Suzie Shaw, of Manassas. 

We knew Gayden and Nancy Morrill when they lived in Manassas and attended our church. When Suzie taught English at Osbourn High School, she had both our daughters in class. 

Gayden and Suzie were both fine people whom we will miss.

Gayden and Nancy were possibly two of the most gracious people I have ever known. He worked for the C.I.A., one of a number of operatives who seemed to gravitate to our church. They knew each other from other duty stations but would only say that they were “civilian employees of the Defense Department.” They couldn’t say much about what they did, but I gathered enough information from other sources to know that their work kept us safe from dire threats to our nation.  He always had a smile and a kind word to say.

Gayden also coached Little League, served for nine years as a Boy Scout leader, and served the Lions Club International for forty-four years. When he retired with Nancy to  Williamsburg, he enjoyed leading tours of Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. He enjoyed historic preservation, furniture refinishing and restoration, gardening, and art. He and Nancy traveled extensively in retirement.

Gayden was diagnosed with ALS a short while ago and declined rapidly.  Patriot that he was, it was perhaps fitting that he passed away on July 4. Godspeed, Gayden Morrill and love and comfort to your family and friends in your passing.

In lieu of flowers, contributions will be accepted in Gayden's memory by the Mayor Gayden W. Morrill Charitable Foundation of Newburyport, in care of Mr. James Kory Wilson at Fidelity Investments, 1900 K Street Northwest, #110, Washington, DC 20006. Online condolences may be expressed at www.nelsencares.com.

Teachers can tell when other teachers are the real deal, and Suzie Shaw, whose funeral service is today, was the real deal. She brought incredible energy and humor to her work, and her love for her young charges was evident. Amy and Alyssa shared with me what they were doing in English class, and I knew that the class was what it should have been because Suzie did things the way that I would have! When Alyssa got into a spat with a young man in her class, Suzie was perturbed, but administered justice with a  twinkle in her eye.

She taught for Prince William County and the City of Manassas for 33 years, winning the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award sponsored by the Washington Post in 1987.  She also taught for Strayer University after her retirement. We would come across her at intermission and after concerts at the Hylton Performing Arts Center these past couple of years and she always asked about our girls.

Suzie's service is this afternoon at 2 PM at Grace United Methodist Church on Wellington Road in Manassas. 

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Susan K. Shaw Memorial Scholarship Fund at Wells Fargo, 155 Broadview Ave., Warrenton, VA 20186. The scholarship will be awarded yearly to a graduating senior from Osbourn High School, Manassas, VA.

Our family was richer for knowing Suzie, and generations were blessed by her knowledge and care. And so she has run the race and we wish for her rest and a well-earned eternal reward. Good-bye, Suzie. You made a difference in so many lives.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Continuing No Shame Poetry Series Presents "Book Review"

Book Review

I see that John Grisham has a new book,
Calico Joe, about a baseball player who
Disappears suddenly one day.
I would like to read it
Since I like John Grisham
And I like baseball.

The title, however, made me think
That the book was about a horse or a dog
Since "Calico Joe" does not sound like a name
For a baseball player. "Shoeless Joe" and
"The Bambino" and "The Splendid Splinter,"
sound like names for ball players and indeed they are
But "Calico Joe?" Why not "Gingham Fred"
Or "Cotton/Polyester Blend Barney?"
I think you see my point.

I remember reading books about animals
When I was a lad.
I especially liked Black Beauty which is
About a horse
And one called Beautiful Joe
About an exceptionally ugly dog
Beloved by children.
Even as a child, I understood the
Post-ironic nature of the dog's name
That he was a beautiful soul
In spite of his physical appearance.

I think that was an important early lesson to me
And I try not to judge on appearances
Although it's hard not to do so

And so, I cannot tell you about the book
Calico Joe because I have not read it
And although I don't like the title
Because it is about baseball and by John Grisham
I just bet that
It is a good book.

--Dan Verner

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Advice for Writers--Better by Half

Sometimes, revision means discarding a particular word that doesn't "ring" and finding one that does. Other times it might mean going through and looking for passive voice. Or the same words used in close promixity to each other. I wrote something recently and used the word "personal" three times within two sentences. Sometimes I can substitute a synonym. Sometimes I have to reconstruct the sentence(s). All these things come about when I am throwing down a first draft. Just get it down and fix it later.

For this post, I want to consider cutting parts of writing. I know, none of us wants to discard a single precious word that flows from the ends of our fingers (or however else you might produce writing--I don't want to limit anyone here). Most of the time, though, making something shorter makes it better.

I have had the good fortune to write a column for two local papers in the past four years, and typically, those columns run to about 750 words. I can write more, but I don't want to irritate my editor by forcing her to rework a piece to make it shorter. That's my job. You probably recall the inverted triangle (pyramid) structure of a news story. Important stuff in the lead paragraph (but punch it up!), other stuff in order of decreasing importance. That's so if the poor longsuffering editors needs to cut your deathless prose, they can lop it off at the end with little lost. Columns, not  so much since the last sentence where I put wisdom of the ages (or a really weak pun, whatever).

So, I had a story I had written a few years ago and had never published. Yes, I sometimes write things for the fun of writing them. I know that's an odd practice. This wonderful story ran to 1500 words, and I needed to cut it down to 750 for the column.

My practice is first to go through and eliminate paragraphs that can depart. There are usually two or three.

Next, I see if I can cut out some of the dialogue. I like to use dialogue because it speaks to me (there's your weak pun!).

Then, I chop out sentences that would enjoy a respite.

And finally, we get down to it when I cut out words that aren't necessary.

That's how I cut the story in half. Actually, it took longer to edit the column down to size than it would have to write a fresh one. But I liked the approach and message of a piece and it's worth taking the time to make it right and to make it shorter.

And that's the long and short of it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

I have been thinking lately about our national anthem as I tend to do on patriotic holidays. I had a close encounter with the song recently when I had to sing it for an audition for a choir festival in August. A capella.  Since my singing voice spans (if that’s the right word) an octave and a fourth and the anthem requires an octave and a half, there was a fallacy involved in my even attempting the song. With the help of a well-practiced falsetto I must have done all right since I was accepted. Or maybe they were desperate for tenors.

A while back “The Star Spangled Banner” had a bad rap as being difficult to sing. Garrison Keillor thinks that this has more to do with the key it’s usually set in (Bb) than the range and advocates pitching it in G. (I can’t sing that low. It’s just sad.) We really don’t hear much about the difficulty of the song any more and it is sung frequently these days, which is good. It is a stirring and memorable piece.

I think most people have heard the story of how the lyrics were written as a poem by lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key as he observed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814.  The poem was entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry” and has four verses. It was set to the tune of a British drinking song at the time “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Such an irony may seem strange to us, but it was common practice at the time.  Even hymn writers used drinking songs and other popular melodies since people knew them. The saying, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” has been variously attributed to CharlesWesley, Martin Luther, William Booth, John Newton and Isaac Watts, but appears to have come from a sermon by a British pastor, Rowland Hill who said in 1844, “The devil should not have all the best tunes.” He was calling for an improvement in church music.

“The Star Spangled Banner” became the official national anthem relatively recently, in 1931. Before that it vied with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (using another British tune) and “Hail Columbia,” composed in 1789 by Philip Phile for the inauguration of George Washington. Joseph Hopkinson added lyrics in 1798, and the song was used as an unofficial national anthem until it lost popularity after World War I. It is still used instrumentally as entrance music for the Vice-President. Not to be confused with “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” the anthem was performed in the John Adams mini-series when it was sung by an actor and the audience in Adams’ presence in the theater scene. It sounds like a national anthem written by George Frederic Handel. A verse and the chorus are:

    Hail Columbia, happy land!
    Hail, ye heroes, heav'n-born band,
    Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
    Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
    And when the storm of war was gone
    Enjoy'd the peace your valor won.
    Let independence be our boast,
    Ever mindful what it cost;
    Ever grateful for the prize,
    Let its altar reach the skies.

    Firm, united let us be,
    Rallying round our liberty,
    As a band of brothers joined,
    Peace and safety we shall find.

I think the rarely sung fourth verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” is appropriate here as we think about our country, its freedoms and the sacrifices of so many people over the years and at the present time to insure those freedoms. 

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bob Tale--Uncle Jim and the Rural Fireworks Music Show

Here's a little Royal Fireworks Music to go along with this post. Enjoy!

As my college friend Bob told us stories about his Uncle Jim, the farmer in New Jersey with whom Bob stayed during the summers, he always made it clear that Uncle Jim was an excellent farmer. As with many other people who excel in a certain area, Jim occasionally allowed his natural enthusiasm to carry him into areas of endeavor for which he was ill-suited, often with disastrous results.

One such occasion was Jim's attempt to bring a little culture to his rural town. Jim enjoyed watching PBS and he saw a program on the Son et Lumiere shows popular then at chateaux in France, featuring classical music with laser and firework light displays. Now, Jim enjoyed the annual rendition of the Christmas portions of Handel's Messiah done by the combined choirs of the town every winter holiday season, so he started thinking about staging his own son et lumiere show around the Fourth of July. He didn't want to compete with the town's holiday picnic and fireworks, so he settled on July 3 and printed up some flyers. They said:

JULY 3, 1969
Jim was a generous soul who gave any money he collected to Heifer International. He believed in farming, and in helping farmers all over the world. 

And so, he and Bob were off to buy what Jim termed a "boatload of fireworks." They returned with the pickup bed full, and set about readying the display.

Jim's plan was to imitate the royal fireworks displays in England in which the pyrotechnics were shot off from barges. Instead of a barge, he had a rowboat which he and Bob filled with fireworks, fusing them so they went off in sequence.

Bob ran some speaker wire from Jim's Lafayette stereo system and set up speakers near the stock pond. Dot was to play Handel's Royal Fireworks Music as the display started. Bob and Jim would row out to the fireworks in the middle of the pond, ignite the long fuse, and paddle out of harm's way and enjoy the show along with everyone else.  It would be glorious.

Jim posted some signs around town, and come the evening of July 3, there was a steady stream of cars and trucks turning into the driveway. Bob directed everyone to park in a pasture, and they all made their way to the bleachers Jim had acquired when the high school put up steel ones at the baseball field. The old wooden ones had some splinters in them, but still had plenty of use as long as no one slid along the seats. Even if that happened, Dot helped in the medical tent every summer at the county fair and had her tweezers, alcohol and bandages. She was ready.

Dark settled on the farm, and Bob and Jim rowed out to set the spark that would begin the whole show. about one hundred people sat on the bleachers in breathless anticipation. Some of them said they could hardly wait to see what disaster would ensue, but they were a cynical minority.

Bob and Jim reached the fireworks boat, and Jim lit the fuse. Before they could even put an oar in the water to get away, sparks from the fuse fell onto the fireworks, igniting some, which ignited the rest. The whole boatload went up in one tremendous column of fire with a huge explosion which woke the sleeping cattle and pigs and caused them to kick down their fences and run away in panic.

Dot saw the first glare of the explosion and started the music. Bob and Jim, blessed with quick reflexes, dove into the water and stayed under for the time it took for all the fireworks to play out, which might have been thirty seconds. They surfaced, climbed in the boat and rowed for shore, certain that everyone would want their donation back. Actually, most people thought it was all planned. They said they had never seen such a spectacular display in all their lives and that they only wished it were longer. They went home happy.

Dot was waiting for Bob and Jim with towels and a couple of observations. "Tonight proves two things, she said. "There's no fool like an old fool, Jim, and there's a sucker born every minute."

Jim and Bob didn't say a word but went in to watch PBS. Masterpiece Theater was on, and they never missed it. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Soujourn in the Eighteenth Century (without leaving town)

Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, is located about a two and a half hour drive from us. One of its advertising slogans is "spend a day in the eighteenth century" in the restored colonial area with reconstructed builidings and costumed historical interpreters. If you have a chance to go (it's one of our favorite trips), be sure to catch up with the guy who portrays Thomas Jefferson. He's great!

Anyhow, with the severe line of thunderstorms that smashed through this area Friday night, we got to visit the eighteenth century when we lost power for about twelve hours. Now, let me say that we were very fortunate with what we experienced. As of this writing (Sunday afternoon), there are still 2.4 million people without power, there have been 13 deaths, and people have suffered millions in property damage. I feel for them all and pray for relief and comfort soon for all concerned.

We didn't have power or cell service for twelve hours, as I said, and a few branches and twigs in the yard.

I had several flashlights around the house so we used those when the lights went out. I wanted to listen to the radio, so I robbed a few flashlights of their "D" cells. Then I figured out I could listen to the glass-enclosed nerve center on WTOP-FM by going to their web site on my iPhone. Of course, I had no way to recharge the phone if the battery ran down. I don't have a car charger to drive around to recharge it as Amy's friend Kyle did when she lost power in a snowstorm in Massachusetts last winter.

We really didn't have the full eighteenth century experience, if I think about it. We have city water so we had running water, and enough hot water in the gas-fired (and electrically ignited) water heater to take showers. We were careful to open and close the refrigerator and freezer quickly and hope the power wouldn't be off long enough to thaw or spoil the food. And since we have a gas range top (with electric ignitors) we were able to light the burners with matches although we had only three of them. They were all we needed so I didn't have to use my flint and steel or fire sticks.

Our landline phone worked throughout, so maybe we shouldn't get rid of it after all.

The power came back on about 10 AM and we were back. Then I had to go around and reset all the line voltage clocks and timers. I tell you, sometimes technology is a curse...but one I can live with.