Monthly Archives: February 2012

Biscuit City Local Writer of the Week: Mary McElveen

I first met Mary Mac (as I like to think of her) when she started teaching chemistry in 1987 at Robinson High School where I also taught (English). We were in the same subschool together and I quickly became aware that this quiet woman from Baltimore with a quick smile and wicked sense of humor was not your traditional high school chemistry teacher. For one thing, she read…and read…and read…She got me onto the urban legend scene, which I used in my deathless study of the use of narrative in teaching writing. I also became aware she was an inventive and caring teacher—in fact, I was surprised to learn at the end of the year that she was a first year teacher. I told her I would have been nicer to her if I had known that. 
Mary fit right into our little band of brothers and sisters in Sub-School 5. When our secretary from those days, Gail Hall, passed away last fall, Mary emailed me to let me know. The memorial service for Gail was not only a beautiful tribute to a wonderful lady but also, as these things work out, a kind of reunion for the Robinson High School/Sub-School 5 crowd. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years from what was a golden era for us. Mary has been instrumental in keeping all of us in touch.
Mary is part of what the kids would call a “crazy smart” family. Both daughters Kay and Sarah went to William and Mary about the same time Amy (our older daughter) did, and husband J.C. is a lawyer. The family used to do things like go to the bookstore together for a night out. And they enjoyed it. Ain’t no pretense in this group. 
Mary says of her daughters, Sarah is now a practicing lawyer, and Kay a Ph.D in anthropology, with two daughters, post-doc-ing at Brown University. THEY are the ones who are crazy-smart…and disciplined. And my heroes.
Here’s how Mary describes herself on her Facebook page: Former biochemist, former chemistry teacher, former network engineer, former corporate training/ communications/ program manager, former executive director of local bar association, poet laureate emeritus, wife, mom, grandma–did I leave anything out?
Mary Mac left teaching in 1997 and went to work for Capital One bank in 1999, having taken the network engineering courses and been certified by Microsoft and Novell. She worked at the bank for ten years, moved twice and became Poet Laureate of Alexandria in 2007 and held that post until 2010.  I learned a couple of years ago that she was Poet Laureate of Alexandria. I wasn’t surprised.
Here’s a poem representative of her work as Poet Laureate:
Afternoon Tea
I have spent too long
in the world of coffee mugs;
I am ready to return
to teacups:
delicate china teacups,
light as whispers,
fragile as my secret dreams;
cups filled with music:
the song of silver spoons.
Coffee mugs swagger
with their murky bitter brew,
and boast in columns of black and white
of argument and negotiation,
of ceaseless cigarettes and crumpled papers
Give me instead
a vellum sheet of poetry,
a thimble of sherry,
a tiered plate of artful sandwiches…
a perfect strawberry,
clothed in chocolate
a cup of amber tea.
She also blogs. You can read all about it at
And so here’s to my friend Mary Mac, Biscuit City Local Writer of the Week, writer, poet, blogger, reader, crazy smart lady! May you sail on for a long time to come!

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Biscuit City Chronicle #1: Bullies, A Valentine Tale

Here’s a special post for the day, drawn from my checkered career in elementary school. Enjoy, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

A Valentine Tale
Things change as time goes on. That’s something I’ve noticed. Some things don’t change as much as others. At my twenty-fifth |high school reunion a while back I won the prize for the least changed in appearance. Or I would have won the prize, except I wasn’t there.  When they gave the award, I had left because the whole event was boring. Like 1 said, some things never change.
Anyhow, I wasn’t sure I won because I was a youthful-looking forty-four year-old or I was an old-looking seventeen-year-old. 1 haven’t changed that much (except for adding thirty pounds and losing hair) since I was twelve, when I was the six-feet two that I am now and weighed one-hundred-thirty-five pounds soaking wet. Wrestling and basketball coaches’ eyes lit up when they saw me (I was basketball center material in those long-ago days) but the glow quickly extinguished itself when they saw me try to wrestle or shoot a basket. I just didn’t have it.
Lacking in athletic ability, I cultured a quick tongue, especially around my mother, who always had something to say. We would be arguing about something like her failure to buy me copious quantities of expensive toys and she would refuse, sayings ”You don’t know how hard it can be. In the Depression, we played with sticks and rags.”
Gee, mom, I bet you had fun.”
 ”Now don’t you get smart with me…”
“Yeah, just What 1 would want to play with. A stick and a rag. Lessee: bet I’d have to be awfully careful not to confuse that rag with my brain…”
“I’m warning you…”
“As a matter of fact, I’d have to be careful not to confuse my brain with—“ I   hesitated a second here, knowing I was about to use one of my finest insults. ”Not to confuse my brain with DOG POOP!
My mother had one of the fastest slapping  hands in existence. She had plenty of practice, after all. I also got to spend plenty of time alone in my room, sent there unjustly for expressing my opinion. I used the opportunity to make up other insults, but “dog poop” was about as good as it got.
I didn’t limit my wit to my mother, but shared it with my schoolmates. This was all right when I had my full growth and looked like I could wrestle, but unfortunately I shot off my mouth a lot when I was four feet tall, which I was during most of elementary school. My wit was matched only by a sense of judgment approximating dog poop.
Our school owned exactly one basketball, which naturally was taken by the resident gang of juvenile delinquents to play basketball with during recess. These guys carried switchblades, wore black leather jackets and probably would have driven their hot rods to school if the school had allowed it. I suppose they let them have the ball to try to make up for being sixteen years old in the sixth grade.
One day I decided I just had to play basketball. I stationed myself near the court, intently watching for my chance to steal the ball. Teeth, blood, and bits of bone were flying out of the tangled mass of black leather on the court. My friend Mike wandered up. “Hey,” he asked me, “Wanna go hang on the monkey bars?”
“Nah,” I sneered. “I wanna play basketball.”
Mike sucked his breath in. He knew about my schemes, having been present when I tried to fly a homemade airplane off our garage roof and when I made a realistic volcano using common chemicals I had found in the school science kit and the recipe for nitroglycerine I had come across in the encyclopedia. “Uh,’ he stammered, “Let’s go stand under the swings and try to look up the girls’ dresses…”
Now that was tempting. “Nah,” I said. “Nah, I wanna play basketball!” Just then the ball bounced my way. I grabbed it and dribbled madly for the basket. “C’mon, Mike, “ I screamed. “Layup! Layup! Layup!”
“I’m going to jump rope.” I heard his departing voice. At the same time I felt myself raised magically in the air. Roger LeBoeuf, the biggest, meanest, ugliest and strongest hood in the three-state area, had the ball grasped in one hand and raised it in the air with me still holding onto it. I had a wonderful idea about how to keep the ball.
“It’s mine,” I said, “I had it first.” Roget gave the ball a hard shake and I fell to the asphalt. He laughed a wicked hood’s laugh. “Mwhahahahahahahaha!”
Lying flat on my back, I struggled to think of something hurtful and spiteful to say. It come to me in a flash of brilliance: “Roger, you’re nothing but a pile of dog poop!”
That caught his attention. He thrust his face close to mine. He smelled of bloody switchblades and burned clutches.” “And you’re a little dead weenie,” he snarled.
I closed my eyes, prepared to end my life with bits of asphalt stuck in my back, seven years old in the second grade. And then I heard the voice of Mrs. Pound, an aptly named sixth grade teacher who had all the juvenile delinquents in her class. She kept them in line though a simple expedient: she outweighed all of them put together by about two to one. Once my class had witnessed her use her favorite method of punishment on an errant student who had talked in the cafeteria line. She squeezed him against the wall with her considerable bulk. The poor kid looked like a flounder for a month.
“Roger,” she said, “You leave that child alone.” She reached down and practically threw me back onto my feet in one powerful motion. Tiny rocks fell from my back. “Now you—“she gave me a push in such a way that I intuitively understood the laws of force and inertia for the rest of my life—“you go over to the swings.”
“Yes, ma’m,” I muttered, glad that I would live to use my smart mouth another day. As I walked past Roger with as much swagger as I could must with pound of asphalt fragments embedded din in my back, he said quietly with an evil tone of menace, “I’ll get you, weenie boy!”
I now had a definite problem. I was a walker, which meant, strangely enough, that I walked home from school, a distance of about half a mile which took me on my two-foot legs about forty-five minutes. Of course, I had to entertain my friends with witty comments along the way and try to violate as many safety patrol rules as possible without being caught. It was a tough life. Now I also had to avoid Roger and his evil cronies ho numbered, I don’t know, maybe in the thousands. Maybe the six in the sixth grade were only a visible remnant of a vast evil empire of black leather-clad figures who would await me at every turn. The possibilities of my life began to diminish. I would have to stay at home with my mother and brother…and our neighbor, Stevie. Oh, no. I loved school. I loved being in the Blue Bird reading group. I loved the science kit. I loved standing under the stairwell when the girls came down them. I loved being a little pervert. I had to be in school. What would my mother say when I told her I couldn’t go to school because I had called someone dog poop? She’d probably have me sent to reform school where Roger would be waiting for me. He probably knew the warden there personally.
My lightning-fast mind came up with two courses of action by the time recess was over: first, I would take a different way home every day. I would rely on my quick reflexes and speedy (if short) legs to carry me out of danger. I was faster than Roger and his cronies, if only because they all smoked and I didn’t-yet. If they failed, I would call upon my legions of friends that I had cultivated with my wit and charm. They would help me. Besides, Valentine’s Day was coming up and I had to be at school for that.
I loved Valentine’s Day. Even now I remember the thrill of slaving over my Valentine mailbox, carefully cutting and gluing the read construction paper doled out to us from the supply closet in the classroom, making out the Valentines I had conned my mother into buying, waiting with breathless anticipation my adoring classmates would shower on me. Yes, it was special but ever more so this year because I was in love. I would never admit this even to Mike, since we had sworn to be bush pilots when we finished elementary school, but I was smitten with Leigh Stone, a brown-haired vision who could hit a softball further than any second grader in the school. In truth, she was the only girl who could hit the ball at all. She wore little blue plaid skirts and when she happened to talk to me, my witty tongue faltered and tied itself into a knot. She was so lovely and so kind. A week before Valentine’s Day, she engaged me in polite conversation from her place in the girls’ lunch line. What a woman, I thought, risking sure annihilation should Mrs. Pound happen by.
“So, do you have all your Valentines ready, Dan?”
Angels never sounded like this, I thought, so I said, “Uh, uh, uh.”
A small frown furrowed her perfect alabaster brow. “Are you all right?”
No, I thought. I’m going to be sick with all this attention. Now I have to find the line monitor so I can ask permission to go throw up. I put one hand over my mouth and waved the other frantically. Leigh looked around. “Who do you see? Who are you waving at?” She looked at Roger, who was lurking in the hall, cleaning his nails with a switchblade. “Oh” she sniffed. “I didn’t know you liked him.” She turned back to her friend.
Now I felt myself doubly doomed. Doomed to death at an early age, ignored by the angel of the school. I would die in a ditch on the way home while the safety patrols looked the other way, as they did for everything. In the event of a nuclear attack, I knew the patrols would be gazing off in the opposite direction, saying, “Nope, I didn’t see nothing’, nope, nothing happened while I was on patrol, no sirree,” as bright mushroom clouds blossomed over what used to be Washington, D.C.
I passed the week in a frenzy of preparation, hoping Leigh would forgive my lunch room gaffe. She gave special Valentines, handmade, with piece of candy glued to the center, and a special message written on each one. I tried to envision what she would write on mine—perhaps something like “To Dan, the bravest, wittiest, fastest, handsomest, if not the tallest boy I know. All my love. Hugs and kisses, Leigh.” She would hand it to me personally and we would hold hands and walk across the playground to the woods behind the school, there to do whatever it was that boys and girls went into the woods to do. I wasn’t sure what that was, exactly, but we would look cool strolling across the softball field. Everyone would watch us in awe, even the bullies, who were afraid to go near the words since Mrs. Pound would smash them up against a tree if they tried.
The big day, Valentine’s Day, arrived. I must have been a ball of hyperactivity—Mrs. Wise, our teacher, made me messenger for life that day. I carried messages to the office, to the clinic, to the library, to the cafeteria, to the janitor’s closet, and when the magic hour of valentine distribution approached, I was designated Valentine Mailman, a singular honor but also a useful one since I go to see who the losers were who didn’t get many valentines.
As Valentine Mailman, I also got to choose the method of distribution and I got to choose my assistant. I chose Mike, since we had a deal that if either of us had a job that allowed us to get out of class and choose an assistant, we would choose each other.  I think we spent about a total of ninety days out of 180 in class and never missed a day of school. As a teacher, I knew that there were ways to get kids out of class that you didn’t want around for whatever reason.
Anyhow, I selected Mike as my assistant and we took the valentines out of the big red box that served as the class’s valentine mailbox. Then we sorted them. I assured Mrs. Wise that this was so we would disrupt class less when we gave them out. In reality, it was so I could see how many valentines each person received. As we counted them out, it became clear that everyone had received the same number: there were twenty-five people in the class and everyone got twenty-six valentines (one extra from Mrs. Wise). I was shocked. I was sure there would be some losers who didn’t get any—Dave, who spent every recess hanging upside down from the money bars, and Nancy, who never said anything to anyone and who slid from corner to corner along the walls when the class went anywhere. I mean, c’mon, these kids got as many as I did? It couldn’t be—unless every other kid’s mother was a soft touch for kid other than their own. My mother made me fill out a valentine for every kid in the class, standing over me at the kitchen table to make sure I didn’t write something like “You’re lucky to get this, you loser,” and gave me a sealed envelope with the valentines in them for Mrs. Wise. That was to guarantee that all the valentines got there unaltered.
I was interrupted in my thoughts as Mike placed a beautiful handmade valentine on my pile. It was cut from the thick, luxurious construction paper found in stores, not the nearly transparent stuff from the supply closet. And it was glued to a heart shaped paper lace doily, with a Hershey’s kiss glued squarely in the center. I knew in an instant it was from Leigh.
Mike and I raced around depositing the piles of valentines in our classmates’ individual mailboxes, throwing them at our classmates. I shouldered him aside as he reached for Leigh’s mailbox and took it to her. I thought about getting down on one knee to give them to her, but decided to float it down on her desk where she sat working math problems. She looked up and smiled. “Thank you,” she whispered. I felt my knees go weak.
“Uh, uh, uh, uh,” I said. I retired to my desk and waited for the signal to open our boxes. Why did I put a top on mine? I tried looking in the slot. All I could see was red darkness. Finally Mrs. Wise gave the signal—she had held out until the last ten minutes of school. Teachers were made of iron in those days.
I carefully eased the top off my mailbox and edged the top valentine out. Yes, there it was—hand-made and on it, in a flowing feminine script—this wonderful creature could write cursive in the second grade—“to Dan: a really nice guy. Sincerely, Leigh.” Was that it? Was that all? Visions of our hand-in-hand walk to the woods shrank to an errant glance at the water fountain. Surely there was some mistake. I pored over the valentine again—and—there, right above the “Sincerely” were tiny marks. I held the valentine up to the light, but I couldn’t tell what the marks were. The magnifying glass in the science kit! I tore over to the shelf where it was kept, grabbed the glass and ran back to my desk. There, under the power lens that we used to fry ants on the playground, were three tiny x’s. XXX. That meant kisses—love—maybe being picked third or fourth for Leigh’s softball team at recess instead of last. It wasn’t my vision, but it would have to do. I looked over at Leigh, who was carefully sorting her valentines. Half of hers seemed to be hand-made. Probably from other girls, I thought. She didn’t look my way. That was OK, I thought. Secret love is the best kind.
I sat impatiently while all the bus riders were called. The school let the walkers go last so the dumb kids in the first grade wouldn’t run under a bus. Finally we were allowed to go, and I sailed blithely home, thinking how wonderful life was, how nothing could ever go wrong again. Leigh was mine. My mind filled with fantasies of our future together and, weighed down by these dreams, I stopped about a block from our house and sat down on the side of the ditch by the road to look over my prize once again. My mother would insist on inspecting them all when I got home, so this was my last moment alone with Leigh’s wonderful message.
I pulled the top off the box and sat in the thin February sunlight, letting the light play across the words on Leigh’s valentine. She must have used a real fountain pen—the ink had bled slightly into the rich fabric of the paper.
A large shadow fell across the words and I smelled leather and burned clutches. I had forgotten to keep an eye out for bullies, and Roger now towered over me. I was a deer transfixed by headlights, my legs paralyzed by contrary emotions of wonderment and abject terror. I knew I could outrun Roger. A couple of weeks earlier, I had persuaded several of my friends to walk with me the main way home. Roger stepped in front of us.
“Hello, weenie boy,” he growled.
Confident that I had superior numbers at my disposal, I said, “What do you want, dog poop?”
“You!” he snarled, and came at me.
“Oh, really,” I said, inspecting my fingernails. “Guys.: I made a tiny gesture back to where my friends stood waiting and then glanced back when nothing happened. I was waiting for their assault on Roger, but instead I saw them about a block away, running for their lives. That’s when I decided to run for mine.
I got away from Roger that day, but I wouldn’t this one. I was seated and I couldn’t run fast and carry my valentine box. And I couldn’t run fast and carry my valentine box. And I wouldn’t leave it to him. He jerked me to my feet. I cradled the valentine box in both arms. “Well, if it isn’t the weenie boy,” he hissed.
I thought of a clever retort involving dog poop but Roger drew back his fist and hit me squarely in the nose. In doing so, he inadvertently save my life because he invoked my secret weapon—my nose.
I had been troubled by frequent nose bleeds before I went to school—something to do with the topography of the inside of my nose. When I got to school, I found I could make my nose bleed simply by snorting. This talent came in handy when I wanted a little time alone in the clinic or an opportunity to think about the six times multiplication table during a test. I used this ability—sparingly, mind you—until I was in high school and an algebra teacher asked me if I had a problem with emphysema as I sat there snorting during a test on polynomials. Apparently my blood vessels thickened up as I got older.
But they weren’t thick when I was in second grade. Roger popped me in the nose, valentines flew everywhere, blood sprayed into the air and I fell over into the ditch. When I recovered my senses enough to stand up, still bleeding all over the valentines, Roger was a block away, running as fast as he could go. I believe he was certain he had killed me. Instead, it was jst a routine nose bleed—not even a two on the Verner Nosebleed Scale.
But my valentines were ruined, and as the cold February wind came p and sent them along the street and plastered them to the fence, I decided that they would just have to be a wonderful memory. I had had enough excitement for one day.
I trudged the rest of the way to my house. My mother was in the kitchen, making a fair catch of my brother who had climbed atop the refrigerator (the kid loved to climb—maybe someday he would climb to the top of the house, I thought. Now, there was an idea…) “Hi, Danny,” my mom said. “Where are your valentines?”
“Didn’t get any, “I mumbled.
She stopped. “Didn’t get any?”
“No,” I said. “I told you I was in class with bunch of losers. Some of them can’t even read newspapers. Can I go to an expensive private school?”
“Watch your brother while I get in the laundry.”
“OK,” said, trying not to show the sudden surge of enthusiasm I felt. Now I could find out how long a child could sit on a floor furnace before his clothes ignited. Fortunately for him they hadn’t even started to smoulder when she came back with the water-soaked and blood-spattered remains of my valentines.
“I found your valentines,” she said. “You must have dropped them.”
“Yeah. I must have.
“Well,” she said, “we’ll just straighten them out and—what’s this on them? Red paint?
“Yeah,” I said. “There was a little accident with the finger paints this afternoon. That’s why I didn’t want to show them to you.”
“Oh, look,” she cooed, pulling Leigh’s valentine from the pile. “What a lovely card. It’s from that Stone girl, isn’t it? Her mother is just the nicest person. And look what a nice rich red color this is. I wonder how she did that?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Can I go to bed?” I had never asked to do this before.
My mother looked at me as if trying to figure out what I was up to.
“I’m tired,” I said.
“OK,” she returned.
She displayed all the valentines for several days until I managed to take them one by one and throw them away. She kept Leigh’s in the kitchen window where she could see it while she washed dishes. After a couple of days she brought it to me. “Have you had this valentine? There’s something brown on it.”
I looked at it carefully. “No, not me, Mom. Tell you what that looks like, though—it looks like dog poop.”

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Evensong Handbells

I’ve played in an adult handbell group for over 20 years now and find it challenging and rewarding. The group asked me to write an article about the bells and their players for the church newsletter. In an original Biscuit Scoop, I’m running the “Director’s Cut” version with some passages restored that were cut from the version that will appear in the newsletter. I hope this piece gives you some more insight into what is involved in ringing handbells and what it means to be part of a talented, musical and caring group of people.
Ringing, Singing on Their Way
I enjoy ringing….since I don’t play a “solo” instrument, ringing allows me to make beautiful music with other beautiful souls.
When the adult Evensong Handbells play for church or in the community, listeners think they’re witnessing what amounts to a giant well-oiled music machine involving 61 bells, 37 chimes and 13 people playing flawlessly.
Music has always been a part of me and in my lifetime, I have learned to play the piano, oboe and handbells after seeing others perform. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the enjoyment on the players’ faces as they performed. And the showmanship that went with each performance captivated my heart!

The reality is a bit different. For one thing, few performances are flawless. In the cascade of hundreds of notes rolling out of the mouths of the precisely manufactured bronze Malmark bells someone along the line is going to miss one. And they’re fortunate if that’s all they do. Worse is getting lost in the music for what seems like several minutes which are in reality mere seconds. The player can stand there or play a bell at random, hoping it will fit. Or he or she might not play at all, standing there frozen, looking for something familiar in the music. Or they can whisper, “Measure” to their stand partner and hope the partner isn’t as lost as they are.
The mistakes pass so quickly that, in general the audience or congregation is unaware of any mistakes. Other players don’t necessarily catch them either—they’re  busy with their own parts.
I love ringing with Evensong because each of us encourages the others, knowing that at any moment we could be the visiting bell!!  Also, Becky pushes us out of our comfort zones, knowing that we can ring more difficult music with each year. 
So, why this obsession with perfection among bell players?
For one thing, it’s a challenge. It takes a while to learn the basic technique for ringing a bell. Once that is mastered, there’s the matter of more advanced methods, of switching bells, of turning pages while the notes march on, perhaps playing with two bells in each hand. It’s difficult and it’s complicated.
Musically I enjoy the challenge, but the thing I like most is that we have become a family and I just like being with these guys!
They are very fine people who willingly meet every Sunday afternoon to make music to the glory of God.
Evensong Handbells play for church maybe five to six times a year and with other special programs such as a Candlelight Concert at Historic Bruton Parish Church and at local nursing homes and end of the year programs that add on maybe four more performances. So why only ten  performances?
In a word, that’s because the music they play is hard. Level 3-4 bells pieces (American Guild of English Handbell Ringers—AGEHR—ratings of the music) are hard to play, period. It takes a lot of practice, even for the experienced players of Evensong.  They might rehearse a three minute piece for five hours total. And the number of years spent playing bells among the players ranges from three to thirty-three, with an average time of over 21 and a total of 321 years for the 15 players and their director.
I play to hear the wonderful music of course. And, for all the laughs and good times.
The bell players are motivated to play well because it sounds better. There is perhaps nothing as powerful and inspiring and exciting and beautiful as a difficult bell piece played correctly. And there is perhaps nothing that sounds worse than an Eb bell intruding into a song in D or one bell clanging against another.
Then there are the disasters. Pages don’t get turned in time; music is thrown on the floor when it’s turned; bells are dropped, tables collapse. These things don’t happen often, but they do happen, most often, thankfully, in rehearsal.
I love the bells because of their sound and the motions we go through to  produce those sounds.  The literature is challenging yet attainable and it embraces my heart and soul.  That is why I play bells.
Let’s talk about rehearsal. Evensong practices about an hour and fifteen minutes weekly with the last fifteen minutes talking about joys and concerns and praying for each other. During that time they will run over four to five songs. Director Becky Verner repeats sections, makes suggestions, uses humor to make her point. Sometimes the group will stumble through a new piece…or fluff one they’ve been working on for a while. At the end of the song, there’s a defeated air in the room. The players know they didn’t do well, and Becky says it for them: “Well, that was underwhelming.”
The players laugh, scowl at their music, adjust their gloves, shake the tightness out of their hands, arms and shoulders. And then at a Ready! One! Two! Three! Ring! from Becky they’re off again, trying to get it right this time, trying to play it perfectly, played as one great organism, thirteen people feeling the music together, reaching toward heaven, offering the best of themselves and their abilities in praise to God.
Bell rehearsals allow us to share our faith, our love of music through handbells and our friendship. It’s a great combination!
And that is Evensong Bells.

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Biscuit City’s Poem of the Week

Williams was a doctor who wrote incredibly beautiful and complex poetry in the intervals between patients.

In honor of the snow we didn’t have this week, this poem. Stay safe, stay warm and call us when you get there. Have a good weekend. 

Winter Trees 
by William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

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Writing Advice of the Week: He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

My younger brother, Ron, a retired Delta pilot who lives near Atlanta, is not only an Army and Air Force vet and pilot with over 17,000 hours in command: he has undertaken guitar rehab and repair as a retirement hobby. He has always done woodworking and in recent years has turned his efforts to fixing broken guitars. He does a beautiful job, turning cracked broken instruments into beautiful guitars that play as well as they look. Recently he has been sending his projects to a program called Guitars4Vets that gives our wounded warriors a guitar and six lessons. After that, they continue with group lessons and music sharing times. Their website is

Ron is also an incredible writer, and I wanted to highlight that today. We have maintained an email correspondence for years now,and while most of the messages deal with our day-to-day activities, his posts to me are models of style and technique. Not too shabby for a Wake Forest business ad major.  Here’s a recent email from him to show what I mean:

Nothing Like a Cheeseburger

… to make up for a disappointing day. The day began with the promise of good things. My Marine Gunny buddy had finally cleared his calendar to allow our meeting for lunch. An eBay buyer had sent an offer for an item that had not sold last week. And, the eBay Ovation repair project still only had my one bid for $79.

Well, my buddy called to cancel, as he had to meet a widowed neighbor at the hospital. She doesn’t have local family, and has been like a grandmother to his kids. Then, the eBay buyer went quiet after I informed him that shipping to Germany for the item would be $47. I did get the Ovation, but two other bidders ran the price up to $97. But, if the German buys the item for $20, that’s the difference. Weird karma today.

At your convenience, could you print out a picture of the back of the Martin guitar with the swirl wood insert? I told Dad about it, and I’d like to get his ideas on how it was done. Maybe I could e-mail Martin customer service and ask for their secret.

Now I need a extra deep throated “C” clamp to work on the Ovation. It has a minor bridge lift, along with the top crack. Nothing I have would work. Stew Mac wants $30 for one, but Grizzly has an identical one for $11. I tried my Rice’s Hardware equivalent, but they didn’t have one.

Oh yeah, the cheeseburger. I waited all morning for the German to reply, so I could mail the box while I was doing errands. Unfortunately, I waited too long, so I couldn’t do any errands. I decided to salvage some of the day by having a decadent Longhorn cheeseburger. It’s called comfort food for a reason.

Ron (Verner)

Most of this message deals with guitar repair and Ron’s sales of some of the instruments on eBay. (Stew Mac is a supplier of guitar repair tools and materials, as is Grizzly. Rice’s Hardware is a local old-fashioned hardware store that I blogged about last week in a post entitled “Breaker, Breaker.”)  Notice the level of detail, the relaxed tone, and how he brings it back to cheesburgers at the end. Well-written, bro! And thanks for letting me post this!

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Local Writer of the Week: Oz Never Did Give Nothin’ to the Tin Man

Mary Gallagher was my student in creative writing at Robinson High School, Class of 1989. I remember her as a quiet, good-natured young woman with an open manner and a disarming smile. So many adolescents are withdrawn or even surly, but not Mary. She had a sunny disposition matched only by what I came to find was a wicked sense of mordant humor. And write. Oh, my, but the young lady could write like a dream. I quickly put her in the “Tin Man” category of students, which is an allusion to the America (of “A Horse with No Name” fame) song which went in part “Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man/ That he didn’t, didn’t already have…” That is to say that I knew early on in the class that the best I could hope for with students like Mary (and like Emily Mitchell and Roy Jefferson) was that I would do them no harm. They had come to me as accomplished writers and what I could do for them was give them opportunities to share their writing and encourage them in any way I could. That was my role as a teacher: anything else could be damaging.

Mary graduated and then came back to Robinson as an English teacher. I would see her in department meetings and in the halls, but we taught in different parts of the building. I lost track of her and I retired. I heard she went to Mountain View.

Then, as I have with other former students, I reconnected with Mary on Facebook. She commented occasionally on my posts and I on hers, and then one day a notice showed up in my email about something called Black Walnut Dispatch, subtitled “Mossy Fecund Thoughts about Gardening and Nature.” It was a gardening/ landscape design blog and it was by Mary. I was a bit taken aback, but delighted at her knowledge and as ever, impressed by the humor and style of her writing. The posts are well worth checking out at She covers a variety of topics, and some of them not related to gardening but amazing anyhow.

I asked Mary how she got started in gardening and landscape design ( I knew about the writing), and she responded by sending me an essay she had  just sent to Washington Gardener Magazine. Mary always made it easy for me, even down to her married name. Her maiden name was Gallagher; her married name is Gray, and so she is still Mary G. and still the Tin Man. And I mean that in every good way.

Here’s how she  got started gardening in her own words:

My Garden Story
By Mary Gray
I remember the exact moment in which I became a gardener.  Or perhaps I should say, I remember the moment that I started to become a gardener, since my transformation was fast, but not instantaneous.  
It was April of 2007, and I had been a stay-at-home mom for a year.  Though I felt lucky to be with my baby boy full-time, being cooped up in the house did not agree with me, and I was restless.  Between feedings and diaper changes, I began looking out the windows.   Our yard looks hideous, I thought.
One warm April day while Charlie was napping, I decided to take the baby monitor outside and do some yard work.  I was pruning an overgrown Euonymus ‘Manhattan’ (of course, at the time it was just Green Bush ‘Ugly’ to me) when I looked up and surveyed the backyard.  It was terribly weed-ridden and overgrown, but I remember thinking:  I’m going to fix this place up.  This thought was followed by another as I continued my work under the warm sun: Hmm. This is actually rather pleasant.
Ta-da!  A gardener was born.  What I had previously considered a chore had suddenly become an interesting challenge.  And within a few months, that challenge became an all-consuming passion.  Every second of the day that Charlie slept, I would go outside and start pulling weeds.  I bought Gardening for Dummies and that summer checked out nearly every garden and landscaping book from the public library.  
I became fascinated not only by plants but by garden design, and so a year later I enrolled in George Washington University’s Landscape Design Program.  The program was challenging, but I loved the combination of coursework in design, horticulture, and construction.  Soon I added a part-time job at a nursery so that I could get hands-on experience with plants, and later I began doing freelance garden design and coaching as well.
My backyard became my plant workshop and design playground, and I have had so much fun experimenting with different plant combinations these last few years.  We live on a half-acre suburban lot in Burke, VA.  Our backyard gradually slopes down to our deck, and is graced with several beautiful mature shade trees.
  Unfortunately, most of those trees are Black Walnuts, which not only drop huge nuts all summer and fall, but also secrete a toxin that severely hinders the growth of many other plants.  Even though they create a gardening challenge, we would never dream of cutting down any of our Black Walnuts because they have such a handsome spreading habit and make the back yard feel park-like.  Sure, I’ve been beaned on the head once or twice with gigantic nuts, but what gardener doesn’t have her challenges?
Because of the large trees, the amount of sunlight our backyard receives is highly variable: one spot may get dappled shade, but move a few feet in any direction and you could be in full sun or full shade.  I try to take full advantage of all the sunny pockets by packing them with as many ornamental grasses and summer flowering perennials as I can.  But I’ve found that part shade is amenable to some beautiful plant combinations as well.  I recently planted a partly shaded bed with Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’, Deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’, Hosta ‘Frances Williams’, Heuchera ‘Dale’s Strain’, Sarcococca, Carex pensylvanica, and Digitalis x mertonensis.  Once this planting has proven itself, I plan to tuck some Camas and Allium bulbs around the perennials.
I know that sweeps of ornamental grasses and perennials are hot right now, but I’m a big fan of flowering shrubs for home landscapes.  They are great for adding visual weight where it is needed in a design, they are easy to care for, and there are so many interesting new cultivars that come out each year that offer compact habit, colorful foliage, and an abundance of flowers or fruit.  I especially love shrubs that produce berries, with Ilex verticillata and Callicarpa americana being my current favorites.  Other shrubs I’ve had great success with include Rhus aromatica, Physocarpus opulifolia, Aronia melanocarpa, and various Viburnums.  
In addition to doing freelance garden design and playing around in my own garden, I hope to continue my studies at GW and pursue a Masters in Sustainable Landscaping.  The more involved I become in the world of gardening, the more committed I am to creating the healthiest environments possible, for all living things.

Just beautiful, Mary. Just beautiful. –DV


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Bob Tale #1: Brown Paper Bag

Note: Some of these stories have been published elsewhere, but I wanted to put them out there again as part of the Bob Tales. I love that name for the series. I thought it up myself.

The question I am asked most frequently is “Was Bob a real person?” Yes, Bob did exist, and I’m sorry to say I haven’t kept up with him. I’m calling him Bob Bolt, although “Bolt” is a pseudonym. As to the question, did all these things happen as Bob described them? Answer: Who can tell? I never bothered to find out. I just enjoyed the stories and hope you do, too.

I like to think about inventions and how they impact us, and  not only the big inventions like the airplane or the car.  I like to think about the little inventions like that little plastic thing that fits over the door handle of a hotel room and tells the world whether you want to be disturbed or not.  Someone had to think of that. One of the coolest inventions of all time, though, I think is the brown paper grocery bag.  Now, on the face of it, that might not seem to be that great an invention but suppose it didn’t stand up? (Then it would be a plastic grocery bag.) That would make things that much harder.
In 1852 Francis Wolle  patented in the United States a machine that he devised for making paper bags. Margaret Knight of Boston invented a machine about 1867 to make square-bottomed paper bags that would stand upright by themselves. Charles Stillwell finished the design in 1883 by making pleats in the side so the bags would fold and stack easily. The invention was called the  S.O.S., or Self-Opening Sack. With the advent of the supermarket in the early 1930s, demand for Stilwell’s paper bags took off. They’re still in use today, although some have predicted their demise with the use of the plastic bag (1977). I try to keep a few paper bags on hand to sort recycling.  They also make great guy wrapping paper. (The other guy wrapping paper is the comics page.)
Speaking of inventors, I knew someone in college who was given to, let’s say, fantastic stories.  We never knew whether to believe Bob or not, but he was entertaining.  Apparently he had an Uncle Jim who fancied himself an inventor. The thing was, he didn’t know what he was doing. He made a wind-driven direct current electrical generator for his house out of a fifty-five gallon drum, some shutters and some wire. The thing actually worked until it spun itself off its mountings in a high wind and rolled away. It’s good that they lived in a rural area so no actual damage was done.
One time Jim decided he wanted to make himself a submarine.  He got two aluminum boats and glued them together.  For propulsion he stuck an electric trolling motor through the hull so the propeller was sticking out. He fashioned a periscope from plastic tubing. Now, there wasn’t a lot of headroom in his submarine so he had to lie prone and look out the periscope.  He also had to cut a hatch so he could get in and out. He took a couple of old hot water heaters he had lying around and used them for ballast tanks. And he put in a snorkel for air.
Showing at least some sense, he tied a rope to the “submarine” and told Bob and another nephew that if he got into trouble in his farm pond he would move the periscope rapidly up and down. That was a signal to the two teens to haul him out. Bob said he thought about the weight of the water and had some doubts that they could, but also considered that  Jim couldn’t get into that much trouble in a pond with a maximum depth of about five feet.
With his uncle’s wife Dot fussing at him from the bank about his hair-brained schemes, Jim  wiggled into the craft.  Bob and his cousin pushed the submarine into the water. It floated out about thirty feet and then Jim opened the water inlets.  The craft slowly slid under the water, propelled by the trolling motor.  Bob said at that point he realized that Jim had no way to get to back to the surface since he had not thought to have a way to purge the water from the ballast tanks.  At that moment the periscope started moving up and down like a kid on a pogo stick.
They found out afterward that Jim hadn’t sealed the openings well and so not only did the ballast tanks flood: the interior of the submarine did as well.  Jim was able to turn on his back and breathe from a bubble of air left at the top.  Bob and his cousin hauled on the rope with all their strength but the sub was on the bottom of the pond and wouldn’t budge.  Dot, a good farm wife, ran for the tractor in a nearby field.  They tied the rope to the pull bar and dragged the submarine out.  Bob used a crowbar to split the hull and let Uncle Jim out, soaked and startled but otherwise all right.
This venture did put a damper on Jim’s experiments for a while, but he soon back attempting to do things he knew nothing about.  Dot told Bob some time later that she was just glad Jim hadn’t tried to build an airplane…yet.
So, all you inventors out there, I’m grateful for your efforts.  I’m just glad you’re not like Uncle Jim.

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Raiders of the Lost Arc

We assume, I think, that children like to dress up and wear costumes and pretend, and indeed most do, but there are a very few who don’t. We knew one little boy (I forget his name or what family he belonged to) who hated dressing up as someone else by the time he was six or so. His mother put him in little Halloween costumes until he was that age, and then he absolutely balked at trick or treating as Casper the Friendly Ghost (vinyl edition). He told his mother (she later told me) that he would forgo getting candy rather than wear a “stupid costume.” She asked him who or what he would like to go out as, and he said himself. She sighed and told him to pick out some clothes he typically wore and come back out to go visiting the neighbors.

He went in for a minute and came back outside wearing the same clothes. He spread his arms wide. “Here I am!” he pronounced. “It’s me.”

He proudly went from door to door, easily telling anyone who would ask who he was supposed to be: “I’m me!” I think that confounded most people into giving him more candy than he would have gained otherwise.

Sometimes it pays to be yourself. Except when it doesn’t.

I was wearing what I call my “Indiana Jones outfit” one day last week since it was a bit chilly out. I didn’t deliberately set out to dress like Harrison Ford in the movie role: it just all came together. I got myself a leather flight jacket for a retirement present eight years ago (at Kohl’s–how unlike Indy is that?), and I was wearing some cotton khakis with my boot like brown shoes. I checked out and put on a random blue shirt from the closet but did bring along my Indy-like brown hat. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror before I left and thought, surprised, man, I look like Indiana Jones. All I needed was a bull whip…

I headed for the CVS and strode in from the parking lot. As I was about to go through the automatic doors, a little boy about eight years old was coming toward me with his mom. He caught sight of me, stopped dead in his tracks and with a voice full of wonder, exclaimed, “Are you Indiana Jones?!?”

I hesitated a second as his mother looked at him and then back at me and then at him with an expectant smile on her face.

I thought, I’m an adult and adults shouldn’t lie, especially to little kids. And so I said, “No, I’m not.”

I regretted it instantly. His face fell and he reached up and took his mother’s hand. She gave me what I thought to be a mildly reproachful look that I didn’t understand until I thought about the situation for a bit.

I crushed that little kid’s sense of belief and wonder. It would be as if he saw Santa Claus walking out of the store carrying a gallon of milk and asked him if he were Santa and the elf replied, “Nope, not me, kid.” Of course he isn’t Santa, but what would it hurt to say he was? It would be the thrill of a lifetime for a little kid.

Later on, I was telling a good friend about this encounter. She said, wisely, “You should have said, ‘Yeah, kid, that’s me,’ and winked at him.” She is also honest. “You blew it.”

“And I could have said, ‘I hate snakes'”(which I do).

“Now you’re getting the idea,” she returned. But it was too late.

Sometimes it pays to be yourself. Except when it doesn’t.

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George Lucas, Call Your Office…

A Mr. Shakespeare on line 1…

Sonnet 144

Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
Which, like two spirits, do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colored ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend
Suspect I may, but not directly tell;
But being both from me both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

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Buy the Little Book!

I see by the light of the computer monitor that William Strunk’s little book on writing, Elements of Style, is still with us, now in its fourth edition. It’s also available in a 50th anniversary edition and also in a 2010 version for those who want the latest in great advice on writing. I can’t vouch for the later editions because I used the first edition, which came out in 1959, although I didn’t get my copy until 1964 when I was a lad. Or actually a senior in high school. My copy of the book featured a foreword by one of the finest essayists in the universe, E.B. White (Besides writing great books ostensibly for children about spiders and mice, White was an incomparable writer of essays who worked at the New Yorker for years).

(From Wikipedia:) Not long after The New Yorker was founded in 1925, White would submit manuscripts to it. Katharine Angell, the literary editor, recommended to magazine editor and founder Harold Ross that White be taken on as staff. However, it took months to convince him to come to a meeting at the office, and further weeks to convince him to agree to work on the premises. Eventually he agreed to work in the office on Thursdays.

James Thurber described White as being a quiet man, disliking publicity, who during his time at The New Yorker would slip out of his office via the fire escape to a nearby branch of Schrafft’s to avoid visitors whom he didn’t know.

He published his first article in The New Yorker magazine in 1925, then joined the staff in 1927 and continued to contribute for around six decades.

In 1959, White edited and updated The Elements of Style. This handbook of grammatical and stylistic guidance for writers of American English had been written and published in 1918 by William Strunk, Jr., one of White’s professors at Cornell. White’s rework of the book was extremely well received, and further editions of the work followed in 1972, 1979, and 1999; an illustrated edition followed in 2005. The illustrator, Maira Kalman, is a contributor to The New Yorker. That same year, a New York composer named Nico Muhly premiered a short opera based on the book. The volume is a standard tool for students and writers and remains required reading in many composition classes. The complete history of The Elements of Style is detailed in Mark Garvey’s Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

I cannot find my copy of the Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (it’s here somewhere), but no matter. I have internalized its principles and rules over the years and have some of them by memory.

Principle 11: Use the active voice. (‘Nuff said. Just do it!)
Principle 13: Omit needless words. (This sentence is an absolute model of the principle.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences…

Any writer would be well advised to get this book, study it, and put its principles and rules into action. E.B.White quotes William Strunk telling his classes, “Buy the little book! Buy the little book! Buy the little book!” Good advice, that.

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