Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dried Apples

I'm sitting at my desk at school trying to grade papers when my stomach growls.  Sometimes I bring a snack when I know I'm staying late, but all I have in my desk drawer is a ziploc bag of dried apples.  I forgot I had them.  My grandmother sent them home with me during Christmas break.  They're not much to look at if you've never seen homemade dried apples.  Tannish-brown, shriveled and hard with the chewing consistency of leather.  I eat them slow, one curled sliver at a time.  As I hold each one in my mouth, they begin to soften and release their tart sweetness.  And each slice tastes slightly different.  The darker dried pieces have an after finish of molasses, while the lighter colors taste more like their former selves, fresh off the trees of what remained of my grandfather's orchard and its fence-straddling descendants.  I stop reading an essay to walk down into the hay field where they grew, look for the apples on the ground that hadn't been eaten by the deer the night before.  How many have I eaten, I thought, over the years?  I see my grandmother in the upstairs room of her house, leaning out the window to set screens of fresh apples slices on the tin roof of the back porch, fretting if the yellow jackets started swarming around them.  When all was canned or made into pies, she never let what she picked go to waste.  So as I sit at my desk letting each slice of dried apple soften in my mouth, I can't help but think of my grandmother's hands and the care she took in making them, so, five months later, I can have something to chew on. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Reading at City Lights in Sylva

The literary Journal Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel is having a contributor reading on Friday August 3rd, 2012 at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, NC, and I am gracious to be part of the reading lineup.  Other writers speaking include Jennifer Barton, Pauletta Hansel, Brenda Kay Ledford, Dominique Traverse Locke, Chrissie Anderson Peters, Elizabeth Swann, and Dana Wildsmith.

It's been years since I've visited City Lights, and I've never read there before, so I'm excited but also a little nervous.  I don't know why, I've read my poetry in front of audiences many times, but perhaps its because there are so many talented writers joining me I wonder how the audience will see me.  I'm also the only guy reading in the lineup, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  I believe Ernest Hemingway once said that all male writers were in competition with one another, though I've never been challenged to a boxing match.  Anyway, I think it will be a great reading as there are so many diverse and talented writers in the lineup.

Many thanks to Pauletta Hansel for her hand in organizing this reading.  If anyone is in the area Friday, August 3rd, you should come check it out.  Below is a link to the bookstore's website.  Hope to see you there!

City Lights Bookstore

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Quotes from Carl Sandburg

I came across these quotes while looking through some old college notebooks. Sandburg had a way turning a phrase that is at the same time both absurd and astute.

"The man who knows everything has fleas in each ear and they look up the answers."
-- from Sandburg's Fables, Foibles, and Foobles

"What is shame? Shame is the feeling you have when you agree with the woman who loves you that you are the man she thinks you are...."
-- from Harry Golden's Carl Sandburg

"Truth consists of paradoxes and a paradox is two facts that stand on opposite hilltops and across the intervening valley call each other liars."
-- from Harry Golden's Carl Sandburg

"A celebrity is a fellow who eats celery with celerity."
-- from Harry Golden's Carl Sandburg

"Fame is a figment of a pigment. It comes and goes. It changes with every generation. There never were two fames alike. One fame is precious and luminous; another is a bubble of a bauble."
-- from Harry Golden's Carl Sandburg

"Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years."
-- from Harry Golden's Carl Sandburg

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A poem by Jim Wayne Miller

Getting Together

Suddenly old friends are in the house. Laughter.
Separated years back, we've wandered around
lost in the American Funhouse. Together again,
what a crowd we are! The walls are angled
mirrors multiplying us many times over.
Each one of us sees the friend he knew
standing back of the one this friend has become,
and shyly, like an unacknowledged companion,
confused by all this familiarity, unseen by our friends,
stands the person we know we are. Laughter.

Moving through the crowd, I realize
I've gradually got used to walking around
in my life a huge elongated trunk and rippled face,
a bulging wrap-around brow, moving on stumpy legs,
my belt just above my shoetops, my chin
riding level with my fly. I have forgotten parts
of myself, my ears lie curled like lettuce leaves,
my hands grow right out of my shoulders,
no wrists or arms or elbows in between.

Glancing past familiar strangers, I try
to hold out a hand to someone who holds out a hand.
Laughter! We hold back all but the little horrors.

from The Mountains Have Come Closer. Boone: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1980.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Got Any Fries With that Shake?

I was sitting at my computer desk working on some lesson plans for the upcoming school year when I felt a little jittery inside, like I was on an airplane experiencing some turbulence. I turned to the window to see if maybe I just ate some bad barbecue and was feeling a little lightheaded. The Venetian blinds were rocking back and forth. I felt like little hiccups were undulating through my chest. Slightly alarmed, I got up and walked out into the hallway and continued listening. A couple of lockers faintly rattled. Is it going to get worse? Should I vacate the building? A few other teachers were meeting in a classroom when I barged in on them.

"Do you guys feel that?" Two of the teachers gave me funny looks like I was on something, but the third said, "You know I did feel a little tremor."

Little?! I thought. But it turned out he was once stationed in Okinawa, so he was used to earthquakes. Since Facebook is blocked at my school, I couldn't instantly check to see what other folks were saying. The US Geological Survey web site finally confirmed it. A 5.9 earthquake occurred at 37.975°N, 77.969°W, or roughly between Charlottesville, Richmond, and Fredericksburg, Virginia. The television reports so far that there is no major damage, but that people in DC and NYC have been evacuated from some buildings and subways. A little spooky, but I am relieved that no one is hurt.

Update: There has been a buzz for about an hour after Fox News (consider the source) reported that a police officer stated the Washington Monument was leaning after the earthquake. Every social network has gone ape about it, even some people posting pictures, but no one of any authority has confirmed or denied it. Now, it's been a while since I've been to DC, but I do remember that the Washington Monument is tapered, by 1.3 degrees I believe, from the bottom to the top, so from almost any angle one looks it will seem to tilt. Surely some geometry math-type people out there can confirm this and end this shoot-from-the-hip editorial pseudo-journalistic rumor. "Fox News: when there's nothing real to report, make something up (or quote an analyst and make him/her out to be an expert)!"

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Sting

One sunny afternoon last week I sent my two children out on the back deck to play with their toys for a little while while I washed dishes and watched them from the window. It was one of those rare moments when my eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son were both playing nicely, and I enjoyed watching them. Every now and then they had to run down and grab a toy that had fallen through the rails of the deck. I was scrubbing a pot when I heard a horrendous scream, followed by my daughter yelling, "Daddy!"

Well, I just knew my daughter had done something mean and my son was running in to tattle on her, until I recognized the pitch of my son's crying as a "pain" cry, not "I got my feelings hurt" cry (There's a difference, and parents out there know what I'm talking about!). My daughter said there were a bunch of flies buzzing around under the deck and he started crying and swatting at them. She yanked him away and pushed him to the back door, she said. I looked at his lip and noticed a white spot encircling a small red dot. A bee sting. I hollered for my wife, who immediately gave him a shot of both children's Tylenol and Benadryl while I investigated.

More precisely, it was a Yellow Jacket. The nest, about the size of a softball, was right under the deck where my kids were playing. I tried looking for an angle so I could squirt the little devils with my wasp and hornet spray, but it was under the low end of the deck. It would require me to climb under it to get at them, and I wasn't about to be trapped under there squirting spray and them swarming all around me. I then remembered what my dad once did.

When my sister was four she got stung several times by a hornet's nest that was built under a piece of playground equipment in our neighborhood, one of those old animal rockers on the giant spring. I remember her rocking back and forth and crying as they swarmed around her. My father, being an aficionado and master of fire as a means to solve all pest problems (you should see him work on voles), made a torch out of old dust rags, then doused it in gasoline. He waited until dark when all the hornets returned to the nest and them ambushed them. I was told to stay in the car, but I remember an unknowing neighbor coming out on their front porch and yelling at my dad, wondering if he was an arsonist setting fire to the playground. No, just teaching them "damn bees" not to mess with his little girl.

I made my torch with a bamboo stick and an old towel, then liberally sprayed it with WD40 (less explosive and lower combustion temperature, I thought) and waited until dusk. My wife's chief concern was that I was going to set the wooden deck on fire, so I assured her by stretching the garden hose around and having an extra bucket of water to put out the torch. The kids watched from the kitchen window, my son's upper lip swollen and puffy like one of the cast members of Cats. Boy, those yellow jackets didn't know what was going on! Their little wings were just singeing right off as they dropped to the ground. The few that initially got away tried attacking the torch, flying into it like moths to a flame, literally. When I saw charred wasp paper falling from under the deck, I decided my job was done. I then shot the deck for a few minutes with the water hose.

My son, thank goodness, was not allergic. After a few hours the swelling went down, and we kept asking him to breath deeply for us just in case he had an asthmatic reaction. And just to let you know, I don't normally derive pleasure from torturing animals by setting them on fire. But when it comes to my family, I will avenge!*

* This is where my wife would roll her eyes and give me the "You've got to be kidding" look. I would then have to refer to the time I saved her from the grub-eating skunk, but that's another story.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Television Show's Depiction of Kentucky Un"Justified"

Though I'm not from Eastern Kentucky, I've visited and passed through enough times that I was interested in seeing how FX's new show Justified portrayed the area and its people. I felt like I was watching an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard meets The Rifleman. Though filmed in Western Pennsylvania rather than the scrub hills of southern California, it still has that flavor of Appalachia run through a Hollywood filter: the stubborn, drunken, "aw, shucks" drawling hillbilly vs. the savvy, smug outsiders. You might as well brew a pot of raspberry truffle coffee with Maker's Mark; that's about the taste it left in my mouth.

Does it make for good television? I suppose. The storyline is well-written enough. It's about as accurate to Kentucky, though, as any wild-west trope was for 1950s television. No, you won't see tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street, nor will you see people sitting around a moonshine still listening to bluegrass music and waiting to fill their mason jar (we keep our stills hidden pretty good). So, no offense to fans of the show, but I hope that people aren't watching it and thinking, "Those Appalachians are crazy." Try watching an episode of Jersey Shore and see if you can say the same thing about The Garden State. I would hope not every resident acted like Snooki or The Situation.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Poem by Kevin Young

I took my Poets & Writers Club to Lenoir Rhyne University last month on a field trip to tour the campus and see a poetry reading by Kevin Young. What a lively performance! My high school students were much more engrossed in Young's choice of topic and style than even when we saw W.S. Merwin (the U.S. Poet Laureate) last semester. I now have a new favorite.

"Ode to Chicken"

You are everything
to me. Frog legs,
rattlesnake, almost any
thing I put my mouth to
reminds me of you.
Folks always try
getting you to act
like you someone else --
nuggets, or tenders, fingers
you don't have -- but even
your unmanicured feet
taste sweet. Too loud
in the yard, segregated
dark & light, you are
like a day self-contained --
your sunset skin puckers
like a kiss. Let others
put on airs -- pigs graduate
to pork, bread
become toast, even beef
was once just bull
before it got them degrees --
but, even dead,
you keep your name
& head. You can make
anything of yourself,
you know -- but prefer
to wake me early
in the cold, fix me breakfast
& dinner too, leave me
to fly for you.

from Dear Darkness (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mightier Than the Sword, But Still Dependant on Who Wields It

Quill, n. An implement of torture yielded by a goose and commonly wielded by an ass. This use of the quill is now obsolete, but its modern equivalent, the steel pen, is wielded by the same everlasting Presence.

Ink, n. A villanous compound of tanno-gallate of iron, gum-arabic and water, chiefly used to facilitate the infection of idiocy and promote intellectual crime .... most generally and acceptably employed as a mortar to bind together the stones in an edifice of fame, and as a whitewash to conceal afterward the rascal quality of the material.

from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Toast on a Heel

My wife prides herself in speaking properly, being an elementary school librarian and teacher. I also make it a point to speak clearly and correctly, especially when teaching. However, I am a firm believer in "code-switching," the ability to speak appropriately depending on the social situation. When I'm not at work, or giving a reading or presentation, I allow my speech to relax and fall back on the Southwestern Virginia dialect I grew up on. My wife notices it even more when we drive up to Woodlawn, Virginia, to visit my parents. Though she won't admit it, my wife has a bit of her own Burke County, NC, dialect when she's at home. I thought I caught her the other day using it, but was humorously mistaken.

We were with her parents one weekend, when talk turned to breakfast. I already knew she didn't like eggs, but when she said she didn't like making "toast on a heel," I thought she meant "hill," because she pronounced it more like "heeyuhl."

"What do mean? Do you think it toasts differently at higher elevations? Are you afraid it's going to slide off your plate and roll to the bottom?" I asked. She just gave me that look she normally does when I make completely no sense, which is quite often sometimes. "You said you didn't like making toast on a 'heeyuhl.'"

"No, I said 'heel.'" I then immediately got what she meant, but just to be funny I kept yanking her chain.

"Fill in the blank for me -- 'Jack and Jill went up the _______.'" I swear she said it the same way at first, then corrected herself when she realized I was making fun of her.

To be fair, she always teases me whenever I talk about "strawburries" and "blackburries," or when I say I have a load of clothes in the "warsh," so I can't really tease her too much about it, but the running joke continues.

By the way, I like eating toast on a "heeyuhl," but not on a "heel." Those end pieces always taste like the plastic bag they came in to me.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Poem by Charles Wright

Christmas East of the Blue Ridge

So autumn comes to an end with these few wet sad stains
Stuck to the landscape,
-----------------------December dark
Running its hands through the lank hair of late afternoon,
Little tongues of the rain holding forth
--------------------------------------under the eaves,
Such wash, such watery words...

So autumn comes to this end,
And winter's vocabulary, downsized and distanced,
Drop by drop
Captures the conversation with its monosyllabic gutturals
And tin music,
---------------gravelly consonants, scratched vowels.

Soon the came drivers will light up their fires, soon the stars
Will start on their brief dip down from the back of heaven,
Down to the desert's dispensation
And night reaches, the gall and first birth,
The second only one word from now,
--------------------------------one word and its death from right now.

Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, the half-moon
Hums like a Hottentot
----------------------high over Monticello,
Clouds dishevel and rag out,
The alphabet of our discontent
Keeps on with its lettering,
-------------------------------gold on the black walls of our hearts...

from Locales: Poems from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, edited by Fred Chappell

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Daddy, He's on My Side Again!"

“Daddy, he’s on my side again!” my sister would say as I inched my finger closer to the back seat stitching that designated the line that we were not to cross.

“No I’m not,” I would say teasingly, wiggling my finger to within a millimeter of the line.

My dad would groan and grip the steering wheel a little tighter. “If you two don’t stop fighting, I’m turning this car around and going home, and we’ll never go to Disney World again!”
"I'm not fighting, she started it!" I would say. It's a wonder my dad didn't turn the car around. We didn't deserve those Mickey Mouse ears. Later, I think Dad pacified us with buying us each one of those Yes & No Invisible Ink Game books he probably picked up at a gas station.

This morning I read the headlines that fighting broke out between North and South Korea on an island near their disputed border. Though I am by no means making light of this situation, as casualties on both sides were suffered, I can’t help but be reminded of how two siblings taunt and fight with each other when they aren’t getting along.

Pyongyang, a high military commander of the North, warned the South to stop their military drills on the island of Yeonpyeong. This island sits on the edge of disputed waters. “Don’t taunt us!” he seemed to be saying.

What does South Korea do? “You can’t tell us what to do!” Not only did they disregard the North’s commandment, but they fired artillery into disputed waters. Though far from the shores of North Korea, the South basically stuck their thumbs in their ears, wiggled their hands, and gave the North a raspberry. “Nyeh, nyeh, nyeh-nyeh-nyeh!”

Well, that infuriated the North, so they decided to wipe the smart-alecky smirk off South Korea’s face by throwing a sucker punch. The South got back on their feet and the fight ensued – for an hour! There hasn’t been fighting like this since the end of the Korean War.

When it was all over, the news reported casualties on both sides, though it sounds like the North got roughed up a little more. They’re still running their mouth, though, saying they’ll do it again if the South comes even within 0.001 millimeter of their border. “Yeah, try it again, I dare you!”

The problem is, if the North and South are squabbling siblings, who’s going to turn the car around and not take them to Disney World? “Daddy, he’s touching me again!” I sure hope they don’t come running to Uncle Sam for help. We’ve been Daddy to enough countries who haven’t been playing fair lately (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran) that I don’t think there are enough corners in the world to set some of these red-headed step children in “Time Out.” And there are only so many times you can “warm” a child’s rear end before they get used to the spanking.

from “North, South Korea exchange fire; 2 marines killed” by HYUNG-JIN KIM and KWANG-TAE KIM, Associated Press, November 23, 2010