Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Technology Wednesday--Jack of All Trades

The jack in this case is a literal jack, not the figurative one in the title. I'm feeling kind of post-ironic, which is why I'm writing about car jacks. They're part of technology (so is a stick, for that matter) and I'm a little tired of digital technology this evening, having spent the better part of the day trying to get my formerly reliable laser printer to recognize that, yes, it was connected to a computer, without any success. Truly a first world problem.

Anyhow, I was coming out of Staples last week when a nice fellow told me my right rear tire was nearly flat. I suppose the classic take on that would be to go around and look at it, but I couldn't see why he would be making that up, so I drove the mile or so home to change it. The car, my Mazda 6 wagon, Misty 6, didn't feel like it had a flat--you know, that thump thump thump that warns you something is amiss with your voiture.

So I got out in front of my house, and the helpful fellow was telling the truth. The tire was flat. It wouldn't even register on the tire gauge. Now, we had had AAA for about a gazillion years and used it a few times but I had come to believe that we didn't need it since we don't drive that far. (Helpful hint: you can get a roadside assistance plan from your cell carrier for far far less.) And it always seemed it took the nice AAA people an hour to come fix the problem, which they were very good at.  I didn't have an hour since I am, like most people I know, overscheduled, so I opened the hatch and took out the spare which I was hoping was a real spare but it was a doughnut, one of the most disgusting things ever created. It does the job but it looks darned stupid doing it. Having to put it on negated the man point I had accumulated by changing my own tire. I know, it saves weight and money (the car manufacturers' money), but I don't have to like it.

I unfastened the poor excuse for a lug wrench--it even had a pivoting head so you could make a complete circle with it when taking off the lug nuts. If it didn't snap off, since it was made metal the next step up from tin foil. I loosened the lug nuts and then went to look for the jack, which was secreted in one of the several and mysterious compartments in the cargo bay. I couldn't find it. I thought I was stuck and then I figured the jack in my other car, the Chevy Impala,which goes by the name of the Gray Ghost, might work and be sturdier to boot.

So, I looked in the boot of the Ghost and found it readily underneath the full-size spare and soon had the wagon jacked up and the flat off, ignoring the warning on the Chevy's jack to only use it with the vehicle it was intended for. Don't tell me what to do! Probably the warning was put there by OSHA. I exercised my right to ignore perfectly sensible advice.

I put on the doughnut, threw the flat in the back and hied myself to the friendly tire repair place we have used for years. The flat had a nail in it. The fellow who took the orders at the tire place had told me on an earlier trip there to have a tire plugged that when business was good more people had to have nail holes patched in their tires since there were more construction trucks about strewing nails all over the public roadways.

My tire was patched and remounted in about 20 minutes. I could have put it back on myself and gained another  man point, but I was tired from all the excitement.

I did whatever it was I had to do, and as I pulled up in front of the house, I thought about looking in the owner's manual for the location of the jack. It was in a thoroughly concealed secret compartment I couldn't even tell was there. And so I lost another man point for reading the directions..

Final score, for those who are keeping score:

On the plus side--+1 for removing the tire and putting on the spare
                           +1 for ignoring the warning on the jack.

for a total of         +2 points so far,


deduct one point for not remounting it  -1
and one point for using a doughnut       -1
and one point for looking in the owner's manual -1

So the total man score for the afternoon was -1, which is the score I pretty much carry. I suppose I could pretend it's my golf score, but I know nothing about keeping score in golf, which is another deduction, so that gives me -2. I'd better quit while I'm ahead, which is the best advice I could give myself (and ignore).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bit by Bit--Day Two with Sandy

The past couple of days have been like a big snowstorm without the snow. No shoveling required.

The start of the day featured light rain and breezes. I went over to visit my dad at his assisted living place and got some bread. Surprisingly, there was plenty at the local Food Dog. Bottled water, too. Many places are wiped out of these items.

I did some editing and writing and read a bit in my book, Stephen King's 11/22/63. Impelling book. I'm about 1/4 of the way through and it's well done.

The wind and rain continued to pick up during the day. Right now (about 5:30 PM) the strength of both continue to be noticeable. The wind and rain are supposed to be at their worst from about 8 PM this evening until about 2 or 3 AM this morning.

I'll blog more later.

9 AM Tuesday

The high winds did pick up about 8 last night, but when we went to bed about midnight, I wasn't aware of them. I think they were running about 50 mph and then calmed down.

This morning we have light breezes and a little rain. Areas to the north were impacted far more than we. THe pictures of Manhattan are incredible. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected.

Everything's closed today. We can get out fine, but I'm feeling the need of a day to regroup. Hope everyone is well. I'll be back to the usual nonsense tomorrow.

Take care.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Waiting for Sandy

Well, it has been an eventful week here in Northern Virginia. It's Sunday evening, about 8 PM, and about four days ago the media outlets have been talking about the possibility of a combination hurricane/tropical story named Sandy and a nor-eastern resulting in a massive storm system the Weather Bureau is calling Frankenstorm. It is about 650 miles wide and potentially will affect 60 million people.

The media have themselves all in a lather, which attracts viewers and readers and listeners, and they are all urging people to "prepare" for the storm, which is readily done, unlike the derecho we experienced in June. Because of that experience, during which we lost power for twelve hours, I stocked up on batteries and an emergency radio. We keep a lot of food and water around, so we should be in good shape.

This is a kind of strange experience, akin to awaiting a big coastal snow storm, but without the snow. At least we won't have to clear that away. Fairfax County Public Schools, where I taught, canceled classes for Monday and Tuesday this afternoon. That's highly unusual, and makes me think they know more than we do.

So, we're "hunkering down" (interesting phrase--I wondered where it came from and I found it's of Scottish origin. Here's a link to a good explanation of the origin: ) and waiting to see what happens. I'll update this tomorrow morning when the wind and the rain are expected to arrive.

Monday morning, 7 AM: We have some rain and some wind, but the worst of both is not expected to arrive until this evening. Stay safe, be well, and call when you get there. As Tiny Tim said, "God bless us every one!"

Friday, October 26, 2012

Poem of the Week: Fixing a Watch (Another Metaphor for Writing)

Fixing a Watch                                                      Writing an Essay

                                                       First, examine
the watch                                                                                              the idea
                                      make some notes, if necessary and take
the watch                                                                                            the idea apart.

                            Spread the parts out and try to see how they work.

Clean the parts and                                                                   look at the thoughts

                               Then carefully put them together in good order, 

                                 Be careful, be conscientious, and persevere:

                                     Don't give up until it's done and then

                                      when everything works as it should,


the watch                                                                                                   the writing

and set it going                                                                                and read it over

                                                 and then step back and

                                                     admire your work.

--Dan Verner

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Advice for Writers--the Oxford Comma--You're on Your Own

Last I was meeting with a couple of writers from our local writing group, Write by the Rails (website:, as we were working on edits for our projected anthology. Suddenly (which is how this sort of thing usually happens) we started talking about the Oxford comma and how each of us favored it as a means of punctuating items in a series.

In case you haven't heard of the Oxford comma, you probably have been using it. In a series of items, if a comma is placed before the "and," it is called "an Oxford comma" (or domestically, "a Harvard comma" or if you prefer, "a serial comma").

Recent usage has eliminated the final comma, which can result in ambiguities such as:

I'd like to thank my parents, John Donne and God.

Probably John Donne and God are not your parents. The Oxford comma clarifies this bit of confusion:

I'd like to thank my parents, John Donne, and God.

There's a good article on the subject at, with many more examples and enough ambiguity to confuse anyone.

We editors and writers like the Oxford comma, although using it is a matter of assuring clarity and economy. That's why I say you're on your own. Look at the meaning of the series and do whatever it takes to make it clear.

I tend to favor it because I worked every grammar exercise in the Warriner's series for six long years and they of course liked the serial comma long before it had the name of Oxford. Still, we want to keep up with the times. But we also want to be clear. Good luck to you and be careful out there!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Technology Wednesday--All Charged Up

My dad, who is 87, had his pacemaker replaced last week in an outpatient procedure that took about 40 minutes, with about an hour's recovery time. The other pacemaker had stopped working--its battery ran out and consequently his energy level and circulation were not what they would have been had the pacer been working.

He had had the old device for about nine years, which struck me as a fairly long time for a battery to last. Of course, what it's doing is providing an electrical impulse at regular intervals which on the face of it, while important, would not seem to cause that much drain on a battery. (As usual, I don't know much about my subject, but I do know those ain't Energizer AA cells in the device.) I found out that pacemakers use lithium iodine batteries and they are expected to lose 10% of their power after about five years. Not too shabby. I'm glad for pacemakers and glad that they have such long lasting batteries.

I was thinking about batteries and their power and longevity when my iPhone upgraded itself to a new operating system. With the upgrade,  suddenly the battery wouldn't last all day even though I used it about the same amount. I have had to take to carrying the charging cord around with me and plugging it in wherever I am in the late afternoon, sponging off someone else's 120 volt outlet if I'm away from home. Taking more battery power is not my idea of an upgrade, and I've talked to several other iPhone owners who have experienced the same thing. What's with that, I want to know.

Then I thought about electric cars. My friend and prolific writer and community activist Cindy Brookshire knows a fellow in town who is all about electric cars. I want to interview him when I have time because I don't know much about them other than hybrids seem to be practical at this point in their development while an all-electric doesn't really cut it in terms of our expectations for our cars. Sure, I drive less than thirty miles most days, but suppose I take a wild hair and decide to drive to Atlanta for some reason. With my mighty Impala, it's not problem as long as I have a credit card for gas. I fill it up and keep on going. With some pure electrics, you'd have to stop every thirty miles and charge the pack for a couple hours. That would extend a trip, all right.

I understand there are batteries for pure electric cars under development with a range of 500 miles and a charging time of a few minutes. Now that's what I'm talking about, even if it does leave the problem of a charger infrastructure. Early automobile users bought gas from drug stores, and it would take us quite a while to come up with enough charging stations for everyone. And do you think the oil companies would like that? Not very much, I think.

I know very little about everything I've written about in this post, so I hope some folks who are more informed will comment and correct an errors or misapprehensions I've had. I'd appreciate it. In fact, I'd get a big charge out of it!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ode to Autumn

Or, as John Keats more or less famously wrote,

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run; 
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,         
 And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core... 

I’m sure you’ve had very similar thoughts about autumn yourself.  I was thinking of these lines because I was an English major and have most of my memory occupied by lines of poetry and popular song lyrics. Keats was a favorite of English majors, producing a prodigious amount of work in a few years and dying of tuberculosis at age 26.  He was on the verge of producing a new type of poetry when he died.  Ah, Keats, why did you have to die? I actually heard someone say this near the end of a course in Keats (there are such things) after we had all pretty much worked ourselves into a lather about his premature demise.

I was doing a prewriting discussion with my ESOL class a couple of years ago about activities during each season.  The assignment was then to write about their favorite season and tell why it was their favorite.  As we were talking about fall, I noticed that no one had listed raking leaves so I put that up.  Then, on a whim, I told them that people used to burn the leaves they raked up.  It generated a unique smell, one that I’m sure I would still associate with those autumn afternoons if burning were still practiced. My students wanted to know why people burned leaves. “To get rid of them,” I said.

When I was growing up we lived on Maple Street in Fairfax, an aptly named street with dozens of mature maples crowding the yards.  They were ideal for climbing and building treehouses in, and of course their leaves turned brilliant reds, oranges and golds in season.  Then the leaves fell and then they had to be raked up.  This was by and large a Saturday occupation—whole families were out with rakes, moving the leaves into huge piles. This was long before the day of the gas-powered leaf blower, so it was a tranquil and enjoyable time outdoors together in the cool autumn weather.  Then we burned the leaves, which was incredibly exciting to the children. Open fires blazing like Viking funerals! What a sight! Pyres of smoke and flame all up and down the street! Of course, the smoke was not particularly good for our breathing and the practice did get out of hand occasionally.  I never saw anyone’s house catch fire, but a family a couple of houses up from us caught a large oak tree in their front yard on fire.  Now that was something to see—a fifty or sixty-foot tree blazing like a torch.  The fire department was called, which was even more exciting.  They promptly put the fire out and left.  I don’t remember them scolding the people whose tree had burned.  Such occurrences were to be expected when people burned leaves.

These were not the only dangerous practices we engaged in.  We rode bikes without helmets in the middle of the road for years. I scraped my knees plenty of times but never broke my head open.  I think that was due to pure luck (and a hard head). We also played with mercury using our bare fingers, used asbestos products without protection, and rode in cars with largely metal interiors without seatbelts.  Looking back on it, it’s wonder any of us survived. And I’m not suggesting any of these practices were admirable or wise.  We’re fortunate to know about the dangers of this world and to be able to take precautions against them.  It’s obvious why leaf burning is banned in most urban and suburban locations.  The City of Manassas thoughtfully provides leaf pickup during the fall using what must be the world’s biggest portable vacuum cleaner.  My nephew blows the leaves to the curb about four times a fall and the City picks them up.  It’s easy, clean and convenient.  Still, though, I might take just one leaf and burn it (using proper precautions of course) in the fireplace just to see if it smells like I remember it.  I just bet it does.

Note: In the Poem of the Week feature a couple of weeks ago, I was puzzled by my paternal grandfather signing his name "Lorans" and the registrar spelling it "Lorense." This week my dad told me that he went by "Lorenzo" early on. That would account more closely for the variant spellings. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012


That seems about like what we've fallen into with all manner of pumpkin-flavored products being popular this fall. There is the usual pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread. But there are also pumpkin-flavored potato chips, beer, coffees, bagels, cream cheese, biscotti, dog treats, nonfat Greek yogurt, pancakes, English muffins, Pop-Tarts, waffles, tea, salsa, pasta, sausage, chocolate, marshmallows, and air fresheners. I am not making any of this up, and I know the list is accurate because I got it off the internet.

Now, I think all this is a bit of pumpkin-flavored overkill. Chocolate versions of these products, maybe. But it's too much pumpkin. I'll stick with a slice of pumpkin bread and a piece of pumpkin pie, thanks. And a nice Jack-o-lantern to put on the front porch.

But the Great Pumpkin has come into his own. Linus must be pleased.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ode on Intimations of Mortality from Recollections of Older Age, or, Folding the Laundry

I am folding some clothes, some things that did not need to be removed immediately from the dryer to avoid wrinkles.

After sitting in the basket for half an hour, they are still warm, and I can't help it:

My mind flashes to Juliet's line in the tomb when she discovers Romeo dead and kisses him,

Trying to get a taste of the poison that killed him, but darn the luck, there's not enough to be fatal.

She wails, "Thy lips are still warm." She just misses the death train but wait, there's the "friendly dagger."

So, dagger, do thy work, and so they roll off into history. I hope they were happy but I think they were just dead.

Me, I'm older and I'm folding warm laundry, but as of this moment, with neither poison nor dagger nor dead lover at hand,  I'm still alive and warm.

At least for now.

--Dan Verner

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Advice for Writers--Persistence and Foolishness

I don’t know if I have shared the story of the clock and how I nearly drove my brother Ron crazy with it. This summer, our pastor asked me to take apart some study carrels in the Rock and move them to another room. He said, “I hear you’re good at that sort of thing,” meaning taking things apart and then (sometimes) actually putting them back together again. I have been that way ever since I can remember—I like to take things apart and put them back together, if I can. Which I can’t sometimes.

Anyhow, I somehow got hold of a mechanical clock when I was ten years old. I took it apart, put all the pieces in a shoe box and then tried to put it back together again. I had no idea how to do this, but after we ate, I would sit at the kitchen table and fiddle with the parts for hours, until it was time to go to bed. I was so engrossed in what I was doing that I didn’t notice that my brother Ron was growing impatient with my tedious and obsessive efforts.  After about two weeks of this, he couldn’t take any more. He grabbed the box of clock parts, screamed, “I can’t take this any more!” ran to the door and threw the box into the darkness of the back yard.

I sat there stunned for a moment. Our mother looked at me. “He’s right, you know. Give it up.”

I made a move for the family flashlight which we were not allowed to use without special permission since we would play with it and use the batteries up. “You may not use the flashlight,” Mom warned sternly.

I rose early in those days, so at first light I was outside, meticulously gathering clock parts from the grass and putting them in the box. As I brought my treasure inside, my mom was waiting for me. She sighed. “I’ll say this for you: you’re either persistent or stupid.”

As I'm working my way through multiple revisions of my novel, I am thinking that persistence is a good quality for a writer. It takes persistence to write and keep writing, to keep at it until it's right and then to persist in revision to make it better and better. Perhaps there's some foolishness there as well. Mom was right about most things, after all.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tech Question of the Week

Q: Is it possible to leave a USB drive in the pocket of some pants, wash them, dry them and  have the data on the drive still be intact?

A: Yes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Happy Little Trees

Happy Little Trees and a Happy Little Bridge

I was hanging out with some other writers this past weekend (caution: do not attempt this unless you are a writer as well) when someone brought up Bob Ross. If you haven't heard of Mr. Ross, he had a how-to-paint show, The Joy of Painting, on PBS for years. He was quite the personality, with an Afro hairdo and a gentle whisper of a voice as he painted landscapes with his signature "happy little trees" and "happy little clouds." He made it look easy, but as anyone who has tried painting knows, it's not.

Here's a link with some more information about Ross:

Ross came up last Saturday when one of the writers was talking about her children watching his show after school as she was fixing dinner. She said his soothing voice seemed to calm them. His gentle whisper was in the PBS and NPR tradition of speaking slowly and gently (pace, Fred Rogers), satirized by a Saturday Night Live skit in which two hosts talk about "National...Public...Radio" and proceed to get drunk on non-alcoholic egg nog. "That's some good 'nog!" they say repeatedly as the scene slides into chaos.

But Bob Ross never slid into chaos. He talked about nature and told stories about his pet squirrel, Peapod (I always thought he was saying "Pee Pong").  Our younger daughter Alyssa was especially taken with Ross's show and talked about his painting and monologues. We actually have a Bob Ross how to paint book somewhere in the treasure trove of books in our house. I'll have to go prospecting for it one day.

So, here's to you, Bob Ross. Wherever you are (he passed away in 1995), I hope there are lots of happy little trees.

Monday, October 15, 2012

On Pins and Needles

I was putting some screws into something the other day, I forget what,  using my favorite tool, my Dewalt cordless drill (18 volt),  and I struck several screws in my mouth to hold them--well, not really in my mouth but between my lips (don't try this at home without adult supervision, boys and girls)--and I suddenly had a mental image of a woman working on a dress holding pins in her mouth as she pinned material.

I haven't actually seen anyone do this for decades, but it got me to thinking about a time when people (women primarily) sewed for their friends and family or even to make a little money. Sitting in the waiting room of my dad's doctor last week, I overheard two women talk about making all their own clothes and using patterns, and they seemed to be saying they made their own patterns. I wanted to ask them if they held pins in their mouths but the nurse called them back about that time, and that would have been an odd question to spring on someone an anyhow.

If you think about it, holding (non-toxic) things in one's mouth is like having an extra hand--one without fingers, to be sure, but a mouth can hold a lot of different things. Mother cats carry their kittens in their mouths because, well, they don't have hands. Sometimes if I have several bags to carry and don't have a hand to get my door key out, I'll hold the handles of the plastic bag in my mouth (dear dentist, please don't read that last sentence).

I had an aunt who could look at a girl and make a dress that would fit her perfectly without measuring or trying on or using a pattern. I'm not sure what skills would be involved in doing this, but it almost seems miraculous to me.

The two ladies in the doctor's office allowed as how no one had the time or money to make their own clothes. I know that knitting has had a kind of renaissance. Older daughter Amy is a knitter and she made me a really cool scarf. I can hardly wait for cold weather to wear it again.

I wonder if there will be a similar renaissance in sewing as a reaction to all the digital and technological devices that fill our lives. I remember my mom making clothes, mending and even darning socks. I'd like to think that somewhere, even now, a grandmother is showing her granddaughter how to sew a dress. A
and I'd like to think that the grandmother is holding pins in her mouth.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Poem of the Week: Words for My Grandfather

Words for My Grandfather

In June of 1917 when I was 21
I signed up for the draft for the War
And created a mystery.
All my life I went by Lawrence Harrison Verner
But on the registration card
The registrar spelled my first name “Laurence”
And I signed as “Lorans.”
What would account for this?
I couldn’t spell my own name?
I made a mistake out of nerves?
I gave the registrar a French spelling
Because of bad feelings against Germans?
Whatever the cause, I left a mystery
For a grandson I never knew
Who bears my middle name
And who wrote these words for me.

--Danny Harrison Verner

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Rules for Writing--P. D. James

1 Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.

2 Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

3 Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

4 Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.

5 Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

from The Guardian

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interview with Linda Johnston, Editor and Illustrator of Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory

Dan: Good morning, Linda, and welcome to the Extra Gravy Interview Show,  a somewhat irregular feature on Biscuit City, going out to all our readers and listeners on the Biscuit City Network. Welcome to our newly renovated glass-enclosed observation post.

Linda: Thanks! I’m glad to be here. I must say that the observation post is smaller than I expected.

Dan: I’ll admit it is cozy, but serviceable. Anyhow, I first met you at one of our Write by the Rails meetings which were held Monday evenings this summer. You had a manuscript copy of a portion of your book and I think it’s accurate to say everyone there was blown away by it. How did you get the idea for such a book?

Linda: When we lived in Kansas about twenty-five years ago, we lived close to an historic site on the Santa Fe Trail, just outside Kansas City. I was a guide there and one day while waiting on a group, I saw the diary of a pioneer woman on a shelf in the library. She had traveled the trail, and I became interested in similar diaries, particularly women’s stories.

I could identify with moving and leaving everything familiar behind since we had moved so much with my father in the Air Force and then after we married. My story, in a sense, was the same story as the pioneers.
 I continued to research and read pioneer diaries off and on for the next twenty years.  Although I had always wanted to do a book, five years ago I became serious about it and took a writing class at NOVA.  I did research at the Library of Congress and at the Kansas Historical Society when I visited my daughter who was in school at the University of Kansas. 

I should say that I also became interested in diaries kept by men. They were exceptionally observant and many wrote very well. Some of their script is beautiful as well.

My book tells my story as well. I am interested in art, nature and in the emotions of moving and going to a new place. They’re all there in the book.

Dan: It’s unusual for a book about pioneers to focus on the positive experiences in their lives. Why did you take that approach?

Linda: I asked myself, what did I want my readers to know about these pioneers? What was life like for them on the frontier? How did they cope with what they encountered? How would I have dealt with similar circumstances?  I went back to Kansas every year and found a few more diaries that intrigued me each time.
These people have become very real to me and an important part of my life and of my story. We’ve traveled together all these years.

The original diaries are time machines—they’re a direct connection to the past. When I hold one of them, I’m touching someone’s life.
I want to tell the readers about one man, Samuel Reader, who kept an illustrated diary from the time he was 14 until he was 80. That covered the span of years from about 1855 until 1915. Imagine having such a record of your life!  I have a photocopy of Samuel’s self-portrait above my computer.

Dan: How do people react to your book, generally?

Linda: People are enthusiastic about it and interested in it. It’s so personal, I want people to like what I’ve done. I’ve been fortunate to be able to sketch and paint. I keep travel journals and I illustrate them, which is what people did before the advent of inexpensive cameras.
So many people are turned off by history, but this is a book for those folks who normally would not pick up a book about history.  It shows a different perspective.   It’s the personal story of real people and their lives. I wanted to make history personal. It’s taking a look “between the ticks on the time line.” Anybody can read about people who made history: I want to write about people who are history.
I want people to understand that these pioneers had the same emotions, struggles and heartaches as we do. The context of their experience and understanding it are everything.

Dan:  Did you find a publisher while you were working on it or did that happen before you started?

Linda: Last October, I was at a Women Writing the West conference in Seattle.  Those attending had the opportunity to sign up and meet with editors and publishers who were presenters at the conference in order to pitch a book.  I did just that.  I met with Erin Turner, from Two Dot Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.  I thought targeting the regional imprint of a larger press would be a good fit for my book.  As it turned out, Erin loves Kansas history and has written two books on Kansas herself.  Also, I had had some experience talking about my project at a few other conferences and that proved helpful.
So, I prepped for my presentation. I had props—a picture of Samuel Reader, a leather covered diary and some of my paintings. I felt at ease with her and we connected. I sent my manuscript to her and touched base at Christmas and New Year’s. In March I got an email that she was interested in my book and needed some additional material, which I sent immediately. She sent a message that she was going to pitch the book to the publishing committee the next day.
She emailed me that afternoon after the committee presentation to tell me that they wanted to publish the book. I was so excited!
They sent a contract, and I hired an attorney to review it. That was costly, but it was worth every cent.

Dan: Please tell us about your trip to Kansas this summer to gather more information. You also did something when you discovered the graves of some of the people mentioned in your book. I thought that was very touching. Please be sure to tell us about that.

Linda: Last spring I received a grant from the Kansas Historical Society to complete my research.  I made a trip to Kansas in August to do that.  While I was there I gathered more information and met some fascinating people.  I also visited the gravesites of several of my writers, including Samuel Reader.  The experience was important and very special.
 We don’t usually hear the words, “pioneers” and “fun” used together. But they, like us, did have good times as well as bad.  That’s why the book is called Hope Amid Hardship.
 One settler, Joseph Savage, went to Kansas in 1854.  He went back to New England the following spring to get his wife and five children. . . He went back to New England, remarried, and returned to his farm in Kansas.  His experience shows the character of many early settlers.
That strength, along with hope for the future, got them through difficult times, including droughts in 1856 and 1860.  During that time, settlers received aid (clothing, money, and other supplies) from eastern states.  This helped them survive as well.
Another woman emigrated there, was homesick, and didn’t want to stay.  Her father-in-law would not allow her to leave, so she stayed. She wrote poetically about the wildflowers and nature, and although she might have been “sad and sorrowful” one day, the next day she went to church and recorded that Kansas had invigorated her and that she had never felt so good, that it was a “fairy land.”

Dan: Please tell us about some interesting people you met in the course of doing this book.

Linda: I got in touch with Bill Griffing, who had posted some of his ancestor’s (James) letters online.  James lived in Manhattan, Kansas Territory.  Another of my diarists, Thomas Wells, lived in Topeka but moved to Manhattan in 1870 and lived next door to James the rest of his life.  The two families became lifelong friends.  I was delighted to learn that two of my favorite writers were dear friends. After all, these are people that I have come to care about.  This illustrates the network of relationships that characterizes a society.

Dan: You have an interesting way of working on the book. Would you describe how that happens?

Linda: I paint for a week and then I write for a week, every day, eight to ten hours a day.

Dan: I might add that the paintings are charming and lovely. What sort of projects do you have planned in the future?

Linda: I might like to do a book on Pike’s Peak.  Many settlers traveled from the Kansas Territory to search for gold there.  I would also like to do a children’s nature book, maybe on nature journaling.  I participate in a writing workshop for fourth and fifth graders each summer and really enjoy that.   
As part of my book project, I would like to encourage kids to keep a journal and understand that their everyday lives are a part of history.  I will incorporate this into my website, which is my next big project once I have turned in my final manuscript.

Dan:  Wow! That’s quite a list. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Linda: I feel very blessed that this project is coming to fruition and involves all the things that I enjoy.

Dan: When does your book come out?

Linda: The launch date is August 13, 2013.  The book will be published by Two Dot Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. I’ve already got the caterer lined up for the release party!

Dan: I want to thank you for being our guest today, for an informative, far-ranging interview. We’re looking forward to seeing your book when it comes out. I’ll put a notice here when it does with some information about how our readers can get a copy. We wish you the best in your work!
 We’ve been talking with Linda Johnston, editor and illustrator of  Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from the Kansas Territory. It’s a beautiful book and one that I look forward to reading
This has been the Extra Gravy Interview on the Biscuit City Program, brought to you on the Biscuit City Network. Stay tuned for more interviews at irregular intervals. And so we bid you a fond farewell from the glass-enclosed observation tower.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Uncle Jim and the Trebuchet of Doom

My friend Bob from college generally visited his Uncle Jim in New Jersey over summer vacation or during spring or winter break. One year, however, the college gave us a four day fall break and Bob, as usual, took off for the farm in New Jersey so, he said, he would live to graduate in the spring.

The crops were all in, so Bob said Uncle Jim had plenty of time to think of projects, which was always a dangerous thing.

Jim had seen a special on PBS about catapults and trebuchets, and that got him to thinking. When Bob arrived for his visit, he saw a large trebuchet sitting in the farm yard. It was made of scrap metal that Jim had lying around. Bob thought maybe Jim had built it for pumpkin chunking, but Jim told him he planned to use it to jerk pine stumps out of the ground. He had clear cut some pine trees to free up land for cultivation. A logging company had come and taken the trees away, leaving the stumps, which Jim said he would take care of.

Normally he would have blown the stumps out of the ground with a mixture of fertilizer and diesel fuel, but Dot didn't like the noise and it frightened the livestock, so he was left with pulling them out with the tractor.This was a difficult, tedious task and usually involved more digging than pulling. In truth, Bob was glad to hear that Jim had come up with another way to take the stumps out since he operated the shovel that dug out around the stumps.

The next morning, Bob and Jim were out early, towing the trebuchet to the nearest stump. Dot had left to visit a neighbor, saying she did not want to be around when one of the stumps landed on the house.

Bob dug under the first stump (some digging was involved but not as much otherwise) and ran a chain under it. Jim hooked the chain to the arm of the trebuchet. Bob stood clear and Jim triggered the machine. The arm whipped forward, pulling the stump out of the ground with a huge "POP!" The stump sailed heavenward, over the house, landing square on a shed that Jim kept tools in, flattening the structure and scattering hoes, shovels, rakes and other hand implements for a hundred feet all around.

Bob and Jim stood there for a moment, unable to speak. Finally Jim said, "Guess we'll use the tractor."

Dot came back a few hours later. She surveyed the damage and said, "Well, boys, at least you didn't hit the house."

Jim and Bob didn't say anything. They went in to eat lunch half an hour later and then settled down to watch PBS for a while. "You know," said Dot, "It's too bad there aren't any more seiges of castles. You fellows could make some money renting yourselves out to the highest bidder."

Jim and Bob didn't say anything. Dot started giggling and pretty well kept it up the rest of the afternoon.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Story of the Homeowner and the Fence

Once there was this homeowner who wanted to fix his old fence. The old fence had rotted boards and was in general disrepair. The homeowner took his tools and bought some nice pickets at the picket store and replaced all the broken and rotted bits in the fence and put up the new pickets, changing the fence from a board fence to a picket fence. When this hard-working homeowner was nearly finished, a nice man from the jurisdiction the homeowner lived in came by and said, "You need a permit for your fence."

The homeowner was puzzled at this. He thought he would have needed a permit had the fence been new, but it wasn't. It was about half-new and he supposed he was doing maintenance on the old fence and did not need a permit.

The nice man from the zoning department disagreed and said, "This looks like a new construction to me, so you need a permit."

The homeowner said, "..."

So the honest hardworking homeowner went to the zoning office to fill out an application for a permit. The nice people there told him he had to have a "plat" of his property which he didn't have because of an ancient curse put on his mortgage documents (JK). The nice people conferred for about 15 minutes and then said he could submit a sketch, which he did.

They looked at the sketch in wonderment and said, "This fence is the same place as the other one."

The homeowner allowed as how they were right.

The nice people said, "We'll call you when your permit is ready. You give us a bag of gold then and we'll give you the permit."

The homeowner went home and waited. Sure enough, the nice man called from the zoning department and said, "How tall is your magic fence?"

"As tall as a dwarf, or about 42 inches," came the reply.

"Well, then, you don't need a permit because your magic fence is under four feet."

"I knew that," said the homeowner.

And then he said, "..."

The moral of this story: Sometimes there's nothing to say.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Poem of the Week--Preparing for My Absence

This is based on a line in an email from a friend. She wrote, "I am preparing for my absence next week." I thought that an evocative phrase and the result was this poem.

Preparing for My Absence

Preparing for my absence
I realize I have never been away from myself
Unless you want to count sleep
Which really doesn't because, after all
'I'm still there with myself.
So, I am preparing to be away from myself
I don't know for how long
And I'm not telling where I'm going
In case I should find out and
Tag along with myself.
I'll be out, not available, incommunicado,
Hors de combat
And if anyone needs me
Including me
I'm not here
And I'm not there, either.

--Dan Verner

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Advice for Writers--Tools and Techniques of the Trade

Regular readers of this blog will probably be glad to know this will be the last post on carpentry and writing. Until I think of another one using that metaphor.

Ironically, I finished my big fence project and the first draft of my novel the same day. I thought some more about the similarities involved in producing both.

Obviously I had to use tools--hammer, cordless drill, screws, level, square, pencil, cord, nails--to build the fence. Or I should say to build it so it looked right. If I hadn't used a level, for example, it would have been one crooked fence.

There are tools for writing. I am not going to say thesaurus, dictionary, pen, paper because those are shopworn. I never had much use for a thesaurus anyhow. It's no substitute for having an adequate vocabulary and knowing when to use the right word. One writer said to get a thesaurus and put it in the shed. Sounds like a plan to me.

So, the tools I would suggest having include a word processor. You can use what you like, but writing with a computer is so much easier.

The second tool I think you need is a knowledge of literature. See how it has been done before (pace, Bare Naked Ladies). Read. Read all you can. Then read some more. You'll see how to do it and how not to do it.

As I mentioned already, a good vocabulary is a tool. To acquire one, read. Read all you can. Etc.

I also think you need a good sense of what is significant to put in your writing. If we wanted to read an endless series of non-events we'd read the phone book.

Cultivate a sense of exposition and description in your writing and learn how to balance them.

With my fence, I tried to make it plumb, level and square. It looks better that way, but in truth, with most constructions, it's not. It only looks that way, and you want to make sure your writing is plumb, level and square--or that it seems like it is. That means it should be, in some way, true. There's a lot more to say about this and I'll devote a post to it later.

The last tools are patience and perseverance. When you think you've been over your writing enough, go over it again. My brother refinishes guitars. He devotes hours to hand sanding with progressively finer grits of sandpaper. That is the only way that the instrument will have a smooth finish. The same thing for your writing. Going over and over and over it will produce a polished piece, one of truth and excellence.

That's all I have to say about that for now. And so, have at it!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Technology Wednesday--The Machines Are Revolting

Some of you might remember The Wizard of Id comic strip done by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart. (I was in school with Hart's son. Or maybe it was Parker's son. I forget. I also forget his first name, but he was a very funny fellow. Random observation, I know, but if you've read these posts for a while, you know that's business as usual.) One early collection of the comic showed the short little king, aggrieved at something the peasants had done, shouting, "The peasants are revolting," which struck me as incredibly funny. I can't say why it just did. I've always been a fan of puns, and that one was a classic.

Anyhow, I 'm here to say that the Revolt of the Machines continues at our house. About a month ago we had a new battery put in Becky's car. Now when she turns off the ignition, something beeps five times. Neither the owner's manual nor the internet provides an answer as to why this is happening or what it means. My best guess is that it has something to do with the security system, except I didn't think the car has one. My two other cars have such a system, and it goes off without reason at times. My best guess for that occurrence is high winds. It's a mystery, really.

Then there is my iPhone, which I wrote about wiping out all my contacts and calendar entries when it upgraded the OS last week. I managed to recover most of them since I had "synched" the phone with the computer and they were nestled in the iCloud. On the iComputer. In iLand, I suppose.

Then the keyboard died on the desktop (read main) computer. It had been acting funky for about a month, requiring multiple key presses for certain letters, not responding some times and in general acting naughty. Then it stopped working altogether last Friday. A computer with a dead keyboard is limited as to what the user (me) can put in. So I hied myself to Staples and picked up a nice wireless computer which practically installed itself. The installation "manual" consisted of a folded piece of paper the size of a large commemorative postage stamp with pictures which showed the batteries mysteriously floating into the battery compartment on the keyboard and the USB connector floating into the USB port on a computer. My batteries and USB connector did not float into their sockets: I had to put them in with my fingers. The computer recognized the keyboard (probably an old friend from the factory) and installed the driver and signaled me when the keyboard was ready to use. I couldn't help contrast this experience with the bad old days when you had to type line after line of arcane symbols for hours to try to get your computer to recognize its new "peripheral." And what's peripheral about a printer when you want to print a new recipe? Sounds pretty essential and not at all peripheral to me.

I suppose there are just some things that are mysteries. And these are some of them.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Autumn Leaves

We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood with a large number of towering oaks and maples. Their leaves are starting to turn to the blazing autumn colors we experience every year. The trees are one reason we bought our house here in 1988: judging from a couple we had to have taken out, most are about 120 years old. The builders who constructed the subdivision in 1968 left as many of them as they could, and we benefit from them every day.

They have to be maintained so they don't fall over or shed huge limbs during storms. I'm glad we had ours trimmed up last year so that during the derecho in June we just had a few small limbs on the ground.

For some reason, I was thinking of leaf collections and wondering if kids still did that. I went through a collection stage when I was about eight through about age ten. I collected rocks, elephant figurines (no idea why now), models of airplanes, and leaves. Yes, I actually had a leaf collection of about twenty different kinds, carefully pressed and mounted in a big album I think I made myself. It was good practice for the required ninth grade biology leaf collection project. I pressed the leaves between pages of our encyclopedia until they were dried out. They were also very brittle and fell apart a couple of years later. Sic transit gloria mundi, I suppose.

Thinking of my leaf collection made me think of encyclopedias since they were the pressing method. 

I found that as an adult I had an aversion to encyclopedias.  I wouldn’t agree to buying one for our children when they were younger. It was expensive, and, I thought, unnecessary.  There were better ways to find out information even before the days of the internet.

My dislike of encyclopedias might have come from my elementary school experience.  We were repeatedly warned not to copy our reports out of the encyclopedia. I don’t recall anyone actually trying to get away with this, so there was no trauma associated with some poor kid being hung from the flagpole after his report on dinosaurs, but the warnings must have scarred me for life.

It seemed to me even then that our teachers wanted us to use multiple sources for our information, to think for ourselves about how to put that information together, and to draw our own conclusions.  That’s not a bad way to approach education.

We had something called the New Century Encyclopedia at home, about ten dark burgundy volumes which did have black-and-white and a few color pictures. One of them, I recall, was labeled “Car of the Future” and showed something like the Batmobile with a single huge fin on the rear. It should have been called “Car of 1938.” One of the color pages showed poisonous snakes of North America. I am afraid of snakes, and, in those days, convinced that one day I would be bitten by a poisonous snake and die a horrible death. (I was bitten by a cat about a year ago and quickly developed a painful infection.  But I am not afraid of cats.  Go figure.) The information in any encyclopedia soon became outdated. (Although I still think Pluto is a planet.) We preferred magazines and newspapers for information and used encyclopedias for basic information.

The big guns among encyclopedias were the Britannica which I thought dense and dull (if authoritative) and the World Book which had pictures and a yearly update. Becky speaks of receiving a World Book one year for Christmas. I wonder what an eight-year-old would do with such a present these days.
Encyclopedias do have a long and distinguished history, reaching perhaps a culmination in the  Encyclop├ędistes  of  the 18th century, a group of Frenchmen who attempted to gather all knowledge in a set of books. How Enlightenment of them. This effort reminds me of the Commissioner of the Patent Office reporting to Congress in 1843 that  "The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end."  And that from someone whose business was inventions.

Of course, encyclopedias have moved online along with a pile of  other (sometimes reliable) information. The Wikipedia, a sort of peer-edited encyclopedia, is deemed about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. (I’d still rather have an editor looking over whatever I publish.) World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica have online editions, although they’re still published as books.  They were originally sold door-to-door like much else. Door-to-door sales are not so long gone—we bought our first vacuum cleaner in 1974 from someone who was essentially a door-to-door salesman.

I wrote a newspaper column several years ago about my thoughts on encyclopedia and I thought I was going to be hurt by people who loved their sets. That's fine with me, and I did hear a lot of good stories about them, including one from a fellow who used to sell them door-to-door. It was evidence of a bygone era.

As a teacher, I hope everyone keeps learning all they can. Remember to use a variety of sources, evaluate your material, think for yourself--and don’t copy out of the encyclopedia. You can always use them to press your leaf collection.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Fence Conversion Step by Step--a How-to Guide

OK, here's a nice shot of a panel of the old security fence which we needed when we had a pool, which we haven't had for about five years now. Would hate to rush into anything. I know, the fence looks bad. That's why I'm converting it (and have been since last October--I'm slow but good) into a lovely stylish scalloped fence: here's how--

First step is to take off the old boards. They've been taken off in this picture and are hiding out of the picture except for one at the bottom.  I will reuse the old stringers since I'm cheap. And the old posts.

Here the stringers have been relocated to the proper spacing for the picket fence, and the left hand fence post has been cut to its proper length. And you're right, that bottom stringer is bowed. Not to worry: I will fix it with my magic stringer straightener.

Here's a picture of my magic stringer straightener at work. It looks just like two landscape blocks laid on the warped stringer, doesn't it? That's because it is!

Now I have run a string from picket to shining picket to give me a gauge for the intermediate pickets. The string describes what is called a concatenary curve. It's the same curve you see in the suspension cables for the Golden Gate Bridge. Except the ones there are bigger, much bigger. The red thing on the right is my level which I use to plumb the pickets. I also level the stringers with the level. Strangely enough.

Here I've installed about half the pickets on this section,  screwing them in with deck screws using my cordless DeWalt drill, a birthday present from my wonderful, intelligent and thoughtful children. I would like a pony for my next birthday, please.

Here's a shot of the finished side of the fence with our house and its picturesque garbage and recycling cans in the background along with the blue and tan yard waste cans. I have a lot of cans like that. And this ain't all of them! I took this shot standing in our neighbor's yard. She doesn't yell at me for being in her yard because I am building a more beautiful fence. Artists are always appreciated, don't you think?

And here's a finished panel from our side of the fence, showing my DeWalt drill. Doesn't it look portable and powerful? And isn't it a nice yellow color?

Now you know how to convert your wooden security fence to a lovely scalloped picket fence! I should be done in about a week. I'll post pictures of the finished product. And I'm sorry, but I don't do fences for other people. I'm too slow and make too many mistakes. You can't see them, but they're there. Isn't that just a parable for our lives? I thought so, too. Well, anyhow, I hope you enjoyed my little post on converting your ugly old worn-out security fence to a lovely, stylish picket fence. 

And here are pictures of the completed project: