Friday, November 30, 2012

Poem of the Week--Inertia


Tonight I am going
All around me
The seasons are changing
The earth is turning madly
People are rushing here and there

The leaves have fallen
Decay is setting in
I am a day, a week, a month, a year older
Babies are being born
Children going to school
Finding jobs
Having children
Growing old together or apart
All is changed and
All is changing
But as for me
I'm just sitting here
For now
Going nowhere.

Dan Verner

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Advice for Writers--Accursed Cursive

I broke out in a rash just seeing this again. Oh, the humanity!

I've had cursive writing on my list of things to write about for a couple of years, but never have seemed to be able to get around to it. 

Basically, like most guys, I never did well with cursive, lacking the fine motor skills  to produce the beautiful flowing script  found in our handwriting books.

Yes, we had Zaner-Bloser Handwriting instruction books, which our parents had to pay extra  so that we could have the privilege of being frustrated at every turn. There was even a special what we would call now ergonomic Zaner-BLoser pen (part of the package) that had a place for your fingers and an  odd point to it with a little ball near the other end. The pen was good to chew on when I got frustrated with trying to write correctly, which was most of the time.

I did very well in elementary school, but received constant “C’s” in handwriting. Like most guys, I switched to a sort of half-cursive, half printed style It looked (and looks like this): This is how my buddies and I wrote throughout high school and college, and how I write even to this day.

My  daughter Amy, who teaches fourth grade, says that cursive writing is not even on her radar. I think they teach it in third grade, and Amy writes in it so the kids will be able to read it, but she avoids inflicting that sort of anguish on her charges.  In any case, keyboard has become the new normal, and I’m even doing this on a keyboard. I’m finally able to produce the beautiful, flowing script that has eluded me for so long.  Just not with a pen and paper.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Technology Wednesday--Keeping It Simple

I got some fast food the other day for lunch, and since I had two drinks, I grabbed one of those drink carriers (pictured above). I was looking at it and thinking that sometimes the best technology is the simplest technology. The carrier is made of cardboard and molded into a form that compensates for different sized drinks. Each carrier costs 17 cents in lots of 300 (in case you want to order a bunch), although the big fast food companies probably get a price break. Somehow.

Another example of simple, effective technology is the "Disturb/Do Not Disturb" hang tag found in hotels. I'm not sure who was the first to patent this idea, but they have made a bundle off it. It's one of those inventions that you look at it, smack yourself in the head and say, "Why didn't think of that?"

The last simple and effective form of technology I'm thinking of is the paper book. I use ebooks, and they're easy to carry around and easy to order new books on, but I still use paper books. They're a proven, centuries old technology. They're easy to mark you place, easy to take notes on in the margins and their batteries never run down. So, for now, put me down as having a foot planted firmly in the digital world and in the old school world of simple, effective technology.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bob Tale--Uncle Jim and the Flying Pig

I always enjoyed breaks in college, getting to go home to relax and see friends.  I also enjoyed coming back to school after breaks, catching up on what had happened to everyone during the vacation. After one Thanksgiving break at college, my friend Bob returned with the story of Uncle Jim and the Flying Pig.  It seems that Uncle Jim had gotten engrossed in the Winter Olympics the year before, and especially in the skiing events.  As he sat watching the ski jump competition one evening, Bob heard him say, “I bet I could do that.”

Dot was in her chair reading. “You could do that and break both legs like an old fool and then I’d have to do all the work around here.” Uncle Jim didn’t say any more, but Bob could tell he was thinking about how he could learn to ski jump.

The next morning, Uncle Jim was involved in building what was obviously a ski ramp for a jump. As Bob helped him, he said to Uncle Jim, “I thought Aunt Dot said you wouldn’t be doing any ski jumping.”

“I’m not,” Uncle Jim answered.  “At least not at first. I’m going to test it out on something else.”

“Like what?” Bob asked him.

“Well,” said Uncle Jim, “I’ve been reading how those rocket fellows needed a creature to test how a living thing would stand going into space.  So they decided to use a pig. Problem was, the pig was lying down in the spacecraft on its back and pigs can’t do that.  Poor thing died of fright or something.”

“So you’re going to test your ski jump on a pig.”

“That’s right. And instead of snow, which we don’t have, you and I are going to build one of those big air cushions like stunt men land on. The landing’s the hard part anyhow.”

Bob said he just shook his head. He and Uncle Jim finished the ramp, which was maybe 25 feet high, and then sprayed water on it so it would ice over. Then they took two big vinyl tarpaulins and glued and stapled them around the edges.  When they stuck an air hose from a compressor in one of the seams, the homemade air cushion inflated but lost enough air that they knew it would give with the impact of the pig.

Bob did some skiing around the farm when there was snow, so he let Uncle Jim have his skis.  Uncle Jim made up four trotter holders for one of the pigs from an old harness and fastened them to the skis. Uncle Jim, like most farmers had an affection for animals and would not mistreat them, although he was willing to make them into bacon or ground beef or chicken nuggets when the time came.

Uncle Jim wanted to be sure that the air cushion worked, so he and Bob hauled a hay bale up to the top of the ramp and sent it down.  The bale flew off the end of the ramp, bounced once on the air cushion and then came to rest in the middle. The jump was ready.

Persuading a pig to the top of a ramp is one thing; fitting its hooves into the holders on the skis was another, but finally they succeeded. “Should we have a countdown?” asked Bob.

“Nah,” said Uncle Jim. “Just let her go.” They gave the pig a shove and she skied straight down the ramp for a few feet, squealing the whole time. Then, struggling to free herself, she turned sideways and started to roll.  

The skis flew off on the first rotation and soon the pig was rolling rapidly down the ramp. She flew off the end, rotating like a sideways forward pass. She hit the air cushion, bounced high in the air, came down on all fours and ran off the cushion and across the fields.

“Wow,” said Bob.  “When pigs fly.”

The pig came back after a day or so, but she wouldn’t come near Bob or Uncle Jim. Dot had to feed her. 

As usual, Dot didn’t say anything about the incident, but at breakfast the next morning, Jim’s bacon came flying over from the stove onto his plate.  “What was that?” he asked Dot, who had been the pitcher on her fast-pitch high school softball team and still had a strong, accurate arm.

“Oh, just a little flying pig, since you like them so much,” Dot answered.  And that was the end of it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Wax Paper and Sandwich Bags

You'd think that with the advent of plastic film wraps (after World War II--it was originally called "eonite" after an indestructible material in the Little Orphan Annie comic strip and then was a greasy dark green  that the military sprayed on fighter planes to protect them from water and corrosion damage) wax paper (so-called because it consists of paper with a wax coating--I just love the simplicity of the name) would have gone the way of the dodo, but not so fast there, Sunny Jim! Wax paper is alive and well

Wax paper had its origins in antiquity as oiled parchment which was used by butchers to wrap meat. It was also used as a translucent material for windows since glass was so expensive. A method for applying purified paraffin to paper about 1876.

I remember my mom wrapping my lunch sandwiches in wax paper , which were then put into a paper lunch bag. Very biodegradable. The ZipLoc bag came along in about 1968, and I packed my own sandwiches (I am a terrible sandwich maker, even with decades of practice) in them. Bit of family lore here: when Amy was young, she heard "Zip Loc" as "Loc Boc," so to this day we called them "loc boc bags."

The point is (and I do have one) wax paper continues to have its uses. Here's an article with 14 uses for wax paper: We also use it to cover food in the microwave so it doesn't splatter, to slide furniture and to put on Nacho the Cat's tray for her food since she is a senior cat and finds it harder to eat from a bowl there days.

I'm sure you have your own stories of wax paper, and I hope you'll share them with me. And for me, for now, that's a...wait for it...wrap!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Technology Wednesday--Keep It Simple

I got some fast food the other day for lunch, and since I had two drinks, I grabbed one of those drink carriers (pictured above). I was looking at it and thinking that sometimes the best technology is the simplest technology. The carrier is made of cardboard and molded into a form that compensates for different sized drinks. Each carrier costs 17 cents in lots of 300 (in case you want to order a bunch), although the big fast food companies probably get a price break. Somehow.

Another example of simple, effective technology is the "Disturb/Do Not Disturb" hang tag found in hotels. I'm not sure who was the first to patent this idea, but they have made a bundle off it. It's one of those inventions that you look at it, smack yourself in the head and say, "Why didn't I think of that?"

The last simple and effective form of technology I'm thinking of is the paper book. I use ebooks, and they're easy to carry around and easy to order new books on, but I still use paper books. They're a proven, centuries old technology. They're easy to mark you place, easy to take notes on in the margins and their batteries never run down. So, for now, put me down as having a foot planted firmly in the digital world and in the old school world of simple, effective technology.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Technology Wednesday--Rambler Gambler

Ease up there, readers, the title to this post came from a song that Ian Tyson (of Ian and Sylvia) used to do called "Rambler Gambler." The first verse went

             I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler
             I'm a long way from my home.
             If you people don't like me
             You'd best leave me alone.

Uplifting and personable, I know, but really I couldn't identify less with the song, being neither a rambler (too much of a homebody) nor a gambler (too cheap). But I was thinking about the Rambler, a car produced first by Nash Motors division of the Nash-Kelvinator Company (yes, they made refrigerators as well) from 1950-1954, after which it was made by the merger company of Nash-Kelvinator and the Hudson Motor Company, which was called American Motors or AMC. This Rambler was produced during 1955. AMC revived it for 1958, although I recall seeing them through the early '60's. There was, as the ad above shows, a '63 Rambler.

The wagon was touted as a family car, with a fold flat front seat suitable for camping in the car. The feature caused somewhat of a scandal since someone, somewhere, some time, might fold down the seat and have sex. I remember sermons were preached about it, and that's what might have killed off the Rambler. Too hot to handle apparently.

In today's cars, the front seats recline, but they don't fold flat. Maybe automakers learned a lesson from the Rambler wagon. In surveys, though, car owners have consistently said that cup holders are more important to them in a car than reclining seats. I for one don't know what to make of this. Maybe you do.

Notice: we here at the Biscuit City Studios are going to take a Thanksgiving break to spend time with our families. Look for the next post Monday, November 26. Have a glorious holiday!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Biscuit City Chronicle--Turkeys for Thanksgiving and Shining Sickles

I like Thanksgiving. It’s one of the last holidays unsullied by greed, commercialism and the card companies (although they are making inroads, I see). I even enjoyed the special Thanksgiving school lunch when I taught, maybe because I usually ended up with about ten minutes to choke down a sandwich most days. I made a special effort to make it to the cafeteria for the meal and choked it down in ten minutes. I was rhapsodizing about the lunch to one of my classes when a student did a quick reality check. “Hey,” he said. “It’s still a school lunch.” Well, it was, but it just cost a couple of bucks, and I didn’t have to fix it. With our Thanksgiving meal, since we have excellent cooks in the family, I’m allowed to make the iced tea, even though I can cook under ordinary circumstances. Everyone has a signature dish that she brings. Our daughter Amy, for example, brings the green bean casserole (GBC). There’s a rumor that we might have Twinkies for dessert this year, but I hope that’s only a rumor. The pies done by my sister-in-law Sue are to die for. And Becky makes real mashed potatoes by peeling them and boiling and then mashing them. (There’s a little recipe with your Biscuit this morning.)

I have fond memories of Thanksgiving when I was in elementary school, although they are fragmentary. In sixth grade, our class presented the Thanksgiving play. Maybe because I was in the elite Bluebirds Reading Group, I was pickled to play the role of Father in our deathless production of Turkeys for Thanksgiving, which was an indication of the quality of the play and of the acting. It marked my drama debut—and swan song. The play (in case you never get to see it, if you’re lucky) followed the misadventures of a benighted family who managed to buy four turkeys, all unbeknownst to each other until the finally scene, in which they had a good laugh and actually sat down to eat all four of the birds.

Although I delivered my lines flawlessly and engaged in broad farcical mugging required by the part, the whole enterprise made me nervous, and sucking on my father’s unlit pipe when I held in my mouth as a prop made me sick at intermission. I resolved while throwing up to abandon then and there my nascent acting career and return to my dream of being a bush pilot. At least bush pilots died heroically, plunging to the frozen tundra in a ball of fire, not by losing their lunch over an elementary school toilet.

Another clear memory I have of Thanksgiving was a song we used to sing called, I believe, “Swing the Shining Sickle.” We sang it complete with illustrative motions:

            Swing the shining sickle, cut the rip’ning grain.
            Flash it in the sunlight, swing it once again.
            Tie the golden grain-heads into shining sheaves,
            Beautiful their colors as the autumn leaves.

We had no idea what a sickle was, and now the thought of thirty fourth graders swinging shining sickles makes me blanche. We lived the song, though, because we had no earthly idea how hard it was to cut anything with a sickle. Now, I had occasion to cut one of my appendages rather than any rip’ning grain. Maybe as a future  English major, I liked words like “rip’ning” and “o’er” and the rather forced meter  of the song.  Maybe I liked being able to move around in the classroom. I asked my wife, who is a walking compendium of children’s song if she had ever heard the song after I sang it for her, complete with motions. She allowed as how she had never heard it, but I was vindicated when we had dinner some years later with two of her piano teachers, who of course, knew hundreds if not thousands of children’s songs. I asked them if they had ever heard of “Swing the Shining Sickle,” and they both started singing it! Triumph!

A couple of years later I found a copy of the Silver-Burdett song book we used, Music Now and Long Ago, and there it was, on page 149. I’ve put it at the head of this post in case you’d like to sing it at your holiday gathering. You can come up with some good motions for it, I’m sure.

And so, I wish all of you out there in Biscuit City a happy and thankful Thanksgiving. We have so much to be thankful for, including elementary school Thanksgiving plays and Thanksgiving songs. Enjoy!

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Loss for the Community

I was stricken to learn the the Manassas News and Messenger  will cease publication, including the online, as of the end of the year. My wife remembers when the paper was weekly, then a semi-weekly, and then a week daily and finally a daily. It carried all the news of the community.

We all know that electronic publications have been making inroads on print publications, but this leaves us with a local source of news unless we do want to go online, which I have no problem doing. But there are thousands of people who prefer a print publication, and they will be left out unless they learn to use the internet, which many of them don't want to. The News and Messenger had recently cut back to five issues a week, and I suppose the handwriting was on the wall.

I feel for the 33 staff members who are being let go. They have been helpful to the organizations I am afiliated with. People like Keith Walker and Katherine Gotthardt have done yeoman service for years. Some, like Susan Svihilik, Alex Granados, Bennie Scarton and Jonathan Hunley had left already, and they were wonderful newspaper people and human beings. Susan Svihilik got me to write a weekly column for the paper, which I did for about three years, and that really got me into writing again. Thanks, Susan.

I have been writing a column for the Observer papers since last February, and people on the staff of that paper received a heartfelt and articulate email from Randi Reid, the editor and publisher of the papers.  She says it so well:

Today is a very sad day for the newspaper industry in Prince William County.

The News and Messenger announced today that it will cease publication Dec. 30
and will shut down its website, Inside at the same time.

The Journal Messenger was more than 100 years old and the Potomac News had
been around for more than 40 years before the two publications merged a few years
go. Some of you know I was with the Journal Messenger for 16.5 years.

Thirty-three people will lose their jobs.

A valued local news source will be lost.

The solver of small local issues  and the promoter of solutions to community problems will be gone.

An engine that helped make the local economy work will be stilled.

And a champion of protecting the public's right to know and freedom of speech will be silent.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Poem of the Week--"Ghosts"


I have decided that I
Believe in ghosts
And particularly in ghosts of soldiers.
Not three miles from here
Soldiers fought twice
And some say
Their ghosts inhabit the ground
Where they fought and died.
And there are ghosts in the family:
A Revolutionary War captain of the Virginia Militia
A member of the Georgia Militia during the Civil War
My grandfather who registered for the draft
For the Great War and did not serve
My uncle who fought in Korea
These inhabit the back rooms of
My mind.

And I
I am the ghost that you can't see
Without service
Without presence

--Dan Verner

(For more poems about ghosts on Manassas Battlefield, see Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt's Poems from the Battlefield, available on at

Katherine's finely rendered series of poems is both touching and haunting. )

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Advice for Writers from the Master Himself, Mark Twain

1. The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By 

that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.

2. I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

3. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference

between lightning and a lightning bug.

4. To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused

light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as

a prize composition just by itself… Anybody can have ideas – the difficulty is to express

 them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one

glittering paragraph.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Technology Wednesday--The Machines Are Revolting, Part IV, or, Tired of All That

What happens to bad tires. They retire.
I think that I wrote that I picked a nail in a rear tire of Puff the Magic Wagon a few weeks ago and had that fixed easily. Then I hit a pothole and killed the front driver's side tire. A few days later I felt the by-now familiar rumble through the steering wheel. Yep, another flat. I had that replaced (no idea of what caused it to go flat except for tires communicating with each other), bringing my total for the month for that car to three tires (well, one was patched, but still). Then my other car needed two front tires to pass inspection, so that brings the grand total to five tires this month. The machines are still revolting!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Random Impulses

Generally, as most of us get older, we have a very good idea of what our likes and dislikes are.  Recently, though, I have been thinking about doing some things that I know I do not enjoy or usually want to do.  It’s an odd feeling.

As I wrote before, I don’t like to be outdoors.  Maybe I spent too much time outside when I was growing up, but the great outdoors has far too many hazards and discomforts for me to want to spend hours there.  I know there are people who love the outdoors and spend a lot of time there, and that’s all right.  They can have my share.

The odd thing is, I’ve been thinking about aboriginal Americans who lived very close to nature.  Whether their shelter was a lodge or teepee or pueblo, they had to have been aware of the elements. With a fire for heating and breezes for cooling they were right in the midst of nature.

I have been camping exactly once in my life. I was ten years old, and I remember not sleeping much and just about starving since each of us was responsible for his own food. Lately, though, I been wondering what it would be like to stay outside in a tent. I could pitch one in my back yard and not be that far away from the comforts of the indoors.  Of course, I’d have to buy almost everything I need, including a tent. I do have a sleeping bag from my daughters’ Girl Scout days. It’s a thought, but a  strange one for me. Still, I find myself thinking that being outside with nothing but a thin nylon wall between me and the outdoors would be intriguing, although I’d probably wait until spring to try it.

Then there’s traveling.  I’ve decided I don’t like to travel.  Oh, I like to see different places, particularly places with history and good restaurants and good bookstores, but actually getting there is pain.  I don’t care for driving, which is mostly monotonous and occasionally terrifying. My wife is a great driver (and a wizard parallel parker, even left-handed), so she does most of the driving when we go somewhere.  I do the navigating, and I’m good at that, except when I’m not. That’s a subject for an entire post, but not just now.  Anyhow, if there were a Star Trek-style transporter available, I’d use one, even at the risk of scrambling my molecules. To be able to be some place instantly has a huge appeal for me. And don’t even think about flying. That used to be fun and an adventure, but I don’t have to tell you what a pain it has become. No, I’m comfortable where I am, with everything I need right here.  That’s why my travel impulse is a strange one.  I’d like to fly around the world.  I’m not talking about fly around the world non-stop or on one tank of gas. What I’m thinking would be fun would be to fly around the world using scheduled flights.  I’ve checked and it’s possible.  It would take about three days.  I think I would like to go business class since I would plan to be on an airplane most of the time.  I wouldn’t even leave the airports or clear customs—I would just go right on to the next flight. This is even crazier when I consider that I am mildly claustrophobic. That’s why business class.  I could leave on a Friday and be back Monday if my calculations are correct.  It would be cool to say I had done it.

Then, I’ve been having an impulse lately to have another career.  That’s not that unusual for an early retiree like me, but I’m talking about an entirely different career. When I was in my early teens I wanted to be a rocket scientist. (I was too tall to be an astronaut then.) What dissuaded me from this career path was the sad reality that I am not very good at math, and math is important to being a rocket scientist. My impulse is to take science and math classes and earn a degree in astronautical engineering. I figure with the coursework I’ve done already I can skip the core classes and things like phys ed and go right on to advanced science classes. It would be a whole lot easier for me to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing, but becoming a rocket scientist in my 60’s sounds much more appealing, even if I am probably worse at math than I was in high school. Grandma Moses started painting when she was in her 80’s, so maybe I do have a future with NASA.

So I have these random impulses, but I’ve found if I lie down for a while, they soon pass.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Lest We Forget--Veteran's Day 2012

I don’t have any military experience and believe I would have made a really bad soldier, but as I think about the sacrifices and service by our military through the centuries, certain images and ideas wash over me, along with feelings of  gratitude and appreciation.

I found out recently that a distant ancestor was a captain in the Virginia militia and fought with George Rogers Clark in the Northwest Campaign during the Revolution. Another couple of ancestors were with the Georgia Militia during the Civil War. My paternal grandfather registered for the draft in World War I—I was able to see an image of his draft registration during an online search. My father joined the Army during World War II even though he wasn’t old enough, and was posted to the China/Burma/India Theater. My uncle was in Korea where he won a Distinguished Service Medal. My brother was first in the Army and then the Air Force. He was a fighter pilot, served with the Reserve on C-130's to build multi-engine time and had a 27-year career as a pilot for Delta Airlines. 

I missed serving in Viet Nam because of a high draft number, but know dozens of people who did serve and knew some who were killed. Most recently a fine young fellow from our church joined the Marines and served two tours in Afghanistan. During the first deployment, he was shot through both lungs and would have died but for the quick action of a Navy corpsman and the incredible battle injury care system that had him back at Bethesda Hospital within a week. He recovered to return for a second term and is now at Quantico with his wife and infant daughter. It’s a pleasure and a thrill to see them at church.

Living in this area, we have a strong military presence, people at the Pentagon and Quantico and the Navy Yard, to name a few and leave out many. There people are our friends and neighbors, and the life they have chosen is one of hardship and sacrifice. The Gulf Wars and the War on Terror (which brought it home to the Pentagon and to all of us) should make us aware of the work that the military does, even, ironically, the work that we are not aware of.

Of course, we have had troop deployments to Iraq and still have them in Afghanistan. Families have been separated and thousands of relatives and loved one have stood by graves and received the folded flag. We should never forget all those who had made this ultimate sacrifice.

There are two groups of our military I would like to give special recognition to (although all who served are special) and those groups are the World War II vets and the veterans of the Cold War, which ran from 1945 to 1986.

The vets of World War II are now in their 80’s. My father, who joined as an underaged farm boy, is now 87, but he remembers every detail of his service. I hope anyone who is around a World War II vet would take the time to talk with them about their experiences and to thank them for what they did. I would include those on the home front who also “served and waited.” I think if you do spend time with these folks you will hear some amazing stories. These people are leaving us at the rate of 700 a day and so, the time to listen to them and to thank them is now.

The other group is those who served in the Cold War. They do not have a memorial, but they sacrificed their lives whether literally or one day at a time in often lonely and difficult posts. I talked with one Air Force pilot who flew Sabre jets off the coast of Korea. He said they all knew if something started, they would be the first to go. That’s sacrificial service. Other troops worked in intelligence, a work which continues today to keep us all safe.  I know several people who don’t say much about the work they do, which is a sure indication that they are involved in intelligence.

Tom Paxton wrote a song about the 9/11 first responders in which he noted that when everyone else ran away from danger, they ran toward it. The same is true of our service men and women. They run toward danger so the rest of us didn’t have to.

Veterans’ Day was yesterday, and I hope you made it an occasion to thank veterans, to talk with them, to take them out for a meal. That would be a small repayment for a huge service done so well for all of us.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Poem of the Week--"Nostalgia"


for the lady who told me I wrote too often about nostalgia

I don’t like my socks
They’re too hard
Although they’re all made of cotton
And the elastic in them is good
They’re hard not soft
Like socks used to be

I think I need all new socks

Other people complain about Kids These Days
And Prices and
How You Can’t Go See a Movie Because It’s Downright Embarrassing
And They Don’t Make (Fill in the Blank) Like They Used To
But I think They Don’t Make Socks Like They Used To

They’re too hard

Darn them.

--Dan Verner

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Advice for Writers--the Tangled Web

This week I finished reading reading Stephen King's 11/22/63, which is about an attempt to go back in the past and prevent John Kennedy's assassination, so I am thinking more than usual of the various events and waypoints in time that bring us to where we are. I'm sure we've all played "what if" with our lives. What if my parents have never met? What if I had been born sooner or later than I was? What if I had not met my spouse? What if I had not taken the way home that resulted in someone running into me at a traffic light? It's a tangled web we weave, and one that can go off in a number of different directions. (Ray Bradbury has a terrific short story about this phenomenon called "A Sound of Thunder." You can read it at:

I recommend it highly if you haven't read it.)

There's a principle called the Butterfly Effect, that says even a small thing (such as a butterfly flapping its wings) can cause large changes (like creating a hurricane). And writers of fiction, at least, seem to agree that in spite of their characters' best efforts to change things for the better, all in all things may turn out worse. As the little guy with the big ears said on the Kaiser Permanente commercial, "It's complicated."

It's also complicated for writers who try to mirror reality (or an alternate reality). My novel, which is now in revision, had a character die at a certain point. A friend who is a wonderful writer told me that I should not kill the poor fellow off so soon in the interests of several characters' development. She was right, so I just badly injured him so he was around for a couple of years longer. But--everything is connected to everything else,  in fiction as in life, so I had to go through and change every reference afterward to him being dead. It took some doing, but the book is the better for it.

When I was making the changes, I first was thinking, "But this isn't the way it happened." Then, of course, I realized that it could happen any way I wanted it, unlike reality. Probably under the influence of King's book, I was thinking of the steps that led to my having another flat tire last week. I was fixing Becky's piano lamp and found it needed a new socket. So I took myself off to Rice's Hardware, one of my favorite places. To avoid traffic, I can go down a couple of streets in my subdivision, cross a semi-main road, go through an alley behind the shopping center, swing around the end and there I am.

As I was coming up to the entrance to the alley, I found it was blocked by a tree company's truck clearing a tree damaged by Sandy the storm so I couldn't use my customary entrance. I turned left and got into the alley at the next entrance down. While driving behind the shopping center, I hit an almost invisible pothole and knew instantly I had killed the tire. So, it was off to the tire place to get a new tire. At least the rim wasn't bent.

And so I thought, what if I had deferred my trip to the hardware store? What if I had gotten out on the main road instead of the alley? What if I had seen the pothole and avoided it? Maybe I could have avoided a ruined tire, but on the other hand, I very well could have had a head-on with a tractor trailer on the main road and had damage much worse than a bad tire. Mark Twain's story, "The Mysterious Stranger," is about trying to change life for the better and making it worse.  Here's a link to that story:

So, whether it's life and reality or a novel, we as people and as writers need to make the best choices we can and then see what happens. Perspective helps; good friends help; practicing faith, hope and love all help. We're all in this; we're all in this together; and we're not in it alone.

Technology Wednesday--The Machines Are Revolting, Part III (I Think)

I wrote a while back about how various appliances in my house keep conspiring to break and also incite their mechanical/electronic colleagues to follow suit. I wrote about the keyboard on the the desk top ("big" computer, as we call it) giving up the ghost and how I replaced it with a wireless model that installed itself.

Well, the machines weren't done. One day this past week I could not get my laser printer to work. It has been a great printer, with none of the fiddling and groaning and screeching of the deskjets that made me want to throw them out the window, even if they did print in color (when they printed.). But the laser printer wouldn't print anything. This is a problem for a writer trying to print a draft of a novel.

I ran through the troubleshooting checklist, re-did all the connections, re-installed the software, and tried some other things suggested by my colleagues on the Write by the Rails Facebook page after I had moaned about my recalcitrant printer. Nothing worked. After trying all day to get the thing to work, I finally concluded that the printer itself overdosed on voltage when the lights flickered during the storm a week ago Monday. I have the printer on a filter, but apparently it wasn't enough. So, I bid farewell to Mr. Laser Printer and ordered a replacement. It came in a couple of days; I installed it, and I am in laser printer heaven once again. I just hope the printer part of the All-in-One doesn't make any suggestions to the faxing or scanning part!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bob Tale--Uncle Jim and the Ark

My college friend Bob’s stories about his Uncle Jim might have given the impression that the man totally lacked any sense at all. Bob told us that, despite lapses from time to time, Uncle  Jim was an intelligent, widely-read man who was a prize-winning farmer.  His livestock and crops on his land in western New Jersey consistently won awards, and other farmers in the area sought his advice.  It was just occasionally he had one of his ideas.

Bob went to the farm during fall break one year to find Uncle Jim in the middle of one of his brainstorms.

“Bob,” he said, “Are you still dating that young woman who was here some last summer”

Bob had a series of rather attractive girlfriends although he looked like he was dressed by a committee and had few social skills beyond telling outlandish stories.

“No,” said Bob.  “I’m between girlfriends right now. Why?”

“Hmm,” said Uncle Jim. “I had been looking for a way to thank people in the area for their kindnesses to us over the years and wanted to have a living Noah's Ark pageant for Halloween.

"Noah's Ark pageant?" Bob asked.

“Yep, got everything I need right here—animals, people, a barn we can make look like an ark. Kids will love it.  Older people will, too.”

At that moment Dot shouted from inside the house: “I am NOT playing Noah’s wife!” She knew from a literature course that Noah's wife in medieval pageants was a notorious scold. Which Dot was not.

Uncle Jim sighed and went back into the barn. Over the next few days the elements of the pageant came together. Uncle Jim was to be Noah and Bob one of his sons. The idea was that they would give visitors a tour of the ark. They only had one horse, and Uncle Jim wanted to put a mirror in its stall to make it look like two horses, but Dot refused to let him take one out of the house.  She did agree to sell tickets, and all the money they collected would go to charity. They put up signs at the farmers’ co-op and other places they frequented in town.

Bob and Uncle Jim fixed up some old boards to look like a prow of a ship on the end of the barn and built a ramp for people to walk up. Uncle Jim insisted on putting a sign over the door which read “Noah’s Ark,” although Bob told him Noah probably did not name his boat.

The first night of the pageant they were ready.  They had their horse, cows, pigs, chickens, goats and a couple of ducks. Uncle Jim was disappointed that his daughter Emily, who had moved to the city when she finished college, no longer was there with the doves she raised when she lived at home. They rigged lights along the length of the stalls so everyone could see the animals.

Uncle Jim and Bob dressed in their costumes they had made from feed sacks. Jim had a beard left over from the time he portrayed Abraham Lincoln in a Fourth of July pageant. They took their stations inside the ark and waited for their visitors.

One feature of the tour that Uncle Jim had come up with was to fill four or five 55-gallon drums with water and send it coursing down the length of the stable.  Bob pointed out that the flood was outside the ark, not inside, but Uncle  Jim said he liked the effect.  Who was to say that there wasn’t some water inside the ark?

Their first guests of the evening happened to be a Brownie troop of about twenty little girls. Bob and Uncle Jim could hear Dot talking to them. The troop walked in, herded by their leaders.

“Welcome to Noah’s Ark!” exclaimed Uncle Jim. “I’m only dressed as Noah—I’m still Uncle Jim.” Uncle Jim was nothing if not honest.  “This is my son Shem, who is actually my nephew Bob.” That was Bob’s cue to go around and pull the lever that would tip the barrels of water.

The troop of Brownies was about halfway down the line of stalls when the barrels fell over with resounding crashes and about 2500 gallons of water came rushing along the floor. It wasn’t enough to wash even the smallest girl away, but it frightened them. And they did what frightened children do: they screamed.  The animals, startled by the high unearthly noise, slammed against their stalls. With strength born of panic, they broke out and stampeded down the ramp.  Fortunately, the girls were far enough removed from the larger animals not to be harmed by them.  They were still shrieking as their leaders removed them.

Bob and Uncle Jim straggled out of the barn. “Flood must be over,” Dot observed.  “Guess it’s time for Noah to round up his animals.”

Bob and Uncle Jim gathered up what animals they could that evening, and the rest came back when it was feeding time. Uncle Jim’s only comment was that they wouldn’t have to clean the barn floor that week. Bob was glad.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Acorns and Principles for Living

A Korean dish made from acorn meal. Yum, yum!

We have a number of oak trees on our suburban lot and, as a consequence, we have a number of acorns that fall this time of year. I know I should be a naturalist for making such a connection. In fact, the acorn showers we have are so bad that if I have to do something in the yard under the trees, I wear a hard hat. No kidding. An acorn, as small as it is, can leave a mark when it falls a distance of 40 or 50 feet and impacts even my hard head. Here's the math involved that I carefully worked out:

Let's see, the weight of an acorn is typically about  2.9 to 6.8 grams, or on average, 4.9 grams. The formula for an object dropped from a height, let's say 50 feet is h = -16t ^2 + s where h is the final  height, t is the time in motion in seconds and s is the initial height. (Are you impressed that I am so mathematical? So am I!) So, if an acorn is dropped from 50 feet, its time to the ground is 0= -16t^ +  50. that gives us a time to fall of  1.8 seconds. Ignoring air resistance (because I don't want to fool with it), the velocity of the acorn as it hits the ground about 58 feet per second, or about 33 miles an hour. Not too shabby for a lazy little acorn! It hits whatever it hits (the ground, a squirrel, a car, my head) with enough force to hurt. (Technically, the amount of force is 0.048069 newton, more or less. Now you know.)

Anyhow, with so many acorns falling, I got to wondering about acorns. I know that mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow, which is a kind of life principle whether it applies to businesses or my weight through my lifetime. I found out that a lot of different animals eat acorns, including squirrels, which is why we have so many squirrels around our neighborhood. I tried putting out bird food for a while, but the squirrels ate it. I used "squirrel proof" feeders and found that there is no such thing as  squirrel-proof feeder--squirrel resistant is about as good as it gets.

People eat acorns too, but that doesn't mean I'm going to start fighting the squirrels for a taste. They are used as food in several cultures.Acorn meal can be used in some recipes calling for grain flours. 
In Korea, an edible jelly named dotorimuk is made from acorns, and dotori guksu are Korean noodles made from acorn flour or starch. In the 17th century, a juice extracted from acorns was administered to habitual drunkards to cure them of their condition or else to give them the strength to resist another bout of drinking. Or to swear off drinking so they didn't have to drink acorn juice ever again.
Acorns have frequently been used as a coffee substitute, notably by the Confederates  in the Civil War and the Germans during World War II (when it was called Ersatz coffee).
Unlike many other plant foods, acorns do not need to be eaten or processed right away, but may be stored for a long time, as done by squirrels., Native Americans sometimes collected enough acorns to store for two years as insurance against poor acorn production years.Acorns were a traditional food of many indigenous peoples of North America, but especially those in California,,where several species of oaks overlap, increasing the reliability of the resource.
After drying them in the sun to discourage mold and germination, women took acorns back to their villages and cached them in hollow trees or structures on poles, to keep them safe from mice and squirrels.

So, I suppose you could make a little acorn meal and whomp up some acorn meal muffins. If your dinner guests don't like them, you can always feed them to the squirrels. 

(Information on acorn recipes and more information on acorns in general from )

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Poem of the Week: Anticipating Sandy by Mary McElveen

Anticipating Sandy 

Ready! Set!
Arriving tomorrow!
The 24/7 Cassandras
with all their techno-toys
predict a big one:
the biggest, strongest,
highest, lowest, most destructive,
longest, widest, tallest
monster wind and wave
An epic storm, a perfect storm,
a storm of the barely-begun
Just one day left, so
board up your windows,
batten the hatches,
raid the markets,
and lock up your daughters!
Stock up on water, find your flashlights,
and where are the batteries?
Gas up your car, and tie down the cat.
Charge and charge again
electronic devices that govern your lives.
Pack your bags; prepare to run.

Is this what we've become?
Masters of the universe,
but fearful of the wind? 

Mary McElveen

(Mary is my friend, colleague and the former Poet Laureate of Alexandria,  Virginia. She blogs on alexpoet. My thanks to her for letting me share this poem.)

Advice for Writers--Listen to Your Readers

One of the best things about writing, besides the writing itself, is hearing from people about something you've written. Readers comment on my columns most often, even if that meant nearly being strung up because I don't care for encyclopedias. And I heard from a couple of people who used to fly out of the old Manassas Airport, located where the Manaport Shopping Center is today. These people have talked to me in person, but I also have written comments here and on the FB link to the blog.

My advice to writers is to listen to your readers. More often than not, they will share part of their story, and that's a gift to you and to them.

I have told just a few people about my novel-in-progress, Wings of the Morning, which is about a boy growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm in the 1930's who becomes a B-17 pilot stationed in England.  One lady told me her father was a gunner on a B-17 which was shot down. He spent eighteen months in a POW camp. Another lady told me her father was a P-51 (fighter) pilot who was also shot down and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.

When I happened to mention the novel to one of our Chorale sopranos, Kay Evans, she told me an incredible story about her father. He was born into a "railroad family" in Iowa and his father expected him to work for the railroad. Berle Robinson was one of the fastest telegraphers around and could have worked through the war for the railroad since it was considered a necessary part of the war effort. He wanted to fly, though, and joined the Army Air Force at 15, which was the only service young men could join without their parents' permission.

Berle's father was extremely upset at his son's decision, and before he left, told him that he would never come back and that he had to surrender his car, typewriter, and railroad watch.

Berle came back, married, and the couple had Kay. He and his wife hosted a reunion in 1981 of the crew. Below is a statement he made about the number of missions he and his crew flew It is an incredible document.

And so, listen to your readers. They can give you so much.

My thanks to Kay Evans for sharing her father's story with me and for giving me permission to share it here.