Monthly Archives: July 2012

Fixing the Beans

I would like to be a better cook, but I don’t stand a chance. I am part of a family of phenomenal cooks, including my wife, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, and my daughters. When it comes to special family meal occasions, they do the heavy lifting and I am consigned to making the iced tea and rice (Uncle Ben and I are tight like that). I can make a few things, but at this point I don’t think I will ever achieve Paula Deen or Rachael Ray status.
There are even specialities within the family menu: my mother-in-law makes wonderful deviled eggs; my sister-in-law does incredible rolls and baked products; my younger daughter has a deft touch with a taco dip; my older daughter has green bean casserole (GBC) all tied up; and my wife fixes green beans that could serve as a meal by themselves.  Recently she ran into a time crunch before a family meal and asked me to snap the beans.  I was excited to be asked to be part of a signature dish. I cut the ends off the pile of beans and then broke them into pieces. I am here to report that beans, or at least the ones we used, do not have the strings they used to.  The agronomists have done some good work over the years.  Back in the day you ended up with a piled of bean strings as big as the pile of beans.  And they were tough enough to weave a rope that Indiana Jones could use.
While I was snapping the beans I found I soon fell into a rhythm that was comfortable and familiar.  Then I remembered all the times my mother asked me to help her string beans. It was not my favorite chore–in fact, I didn’t have any favorite chores since I was a lazy slug and preferred reading and watching television. So I would reluctantly string the beans, missing enough that my mom had to go back through then.  When I broke them up, I broke them into large pieces that would take less time.  Again, she had to redo them.  It’s a wonder she asked me to help.  Maybe she was thinking I would catch on.  I’m pleased to report that I did, decades later, and can break beans with the best of them.
Sometimes we learn from our parents in ways we’re not even aware of later on. My love of poetry and music came from my mother.  She would walk around the house reciting poems she had memorized, Tennyson and Browning mostly, and I ended up majoring in English (with more poetry classes than anything) and teaching English for over 30 years. She also sang as she worked in the house or the garden, and music has been an important part of my life from the days of teaching myself to play guitar to currently  being in four musical groups. She was also an inveterate reader, as I am.
Of course, not all of her interests took.  She was a master gardener, and I can’t make anything grow. Gardening always seemed like hard work to me.  I know, there are rewards but I can’t seem to get to them.  A number of years ago I told her I was considering putting in a vegetable garden.  She looked at me and said, “Just go to the farmers’ market instead.”  She knew.
I never thanked my mother as such for these interests that she gave me, but I believe she understood without my saying how much they meant to me. She wasn’t much on expression through words or overt recognition.  She didn’t care at all for Mother’s Day, thinking it was a false and extravagant occasion.  She said, “Everyone is nice to their mothers on Mother’s Day and mean to them the rest of the year.” I told her I would be mean to her on Mother’s Day and nice to her the rest of the year. I always saw her then or if I couldn’t, I’d call her and tell her I was doing so because that’s what you were supposed to do on Mother’s Day.
So, with these thoughts in mind, I hope you will express your thanks to your mother for all she has done for you if you are able.  If you do not have a good relationship with your mother, I hope there was someone who acted as a mother for you. If you are unable to tell your mother in person, I hope your memories of her are good and strong. And to all you moms and all you women who have acted as moms, thank you.  

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Things I Don’t Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Back Here on Earth

5 AM

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

–Dan Verner

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Advice for Writers–Follow the Fingers Where They Go

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

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

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

That makes sense to me.

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

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

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Fobbing It Off (For Real this Time)

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

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

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

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

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Catchers in the Rye

Catchers in the Rye
I have seen a number of articles recently and listened to several reports about the epidemic of childhood obesity plaguing our nation. These are children who are not just chubby or plump or stout—they are obese, and their weight is causing them to have complications now and will cause diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.
Most medical experts point to the same causes for obesity in children that they do in adults—lack of exercise (television and video games) and too much processed food. 

It’s not just a problem for the kids, although it’s more upsetting because they have less responsibility for how much they exercise or how they eat.  It didn’t always used to be this way, though.
Back when I was a lad, all of us were almost invariably thin little urchins. This was because unless we were in school or eating or asleep we were outside, usually running around tearing things up.  This is why my mother (among others) wanted us outside.  If we stayed inside we tore the place up.  We didn’t intend to—we just had a lot of energy and were basically clumsy ( I still am). If someone were inside for long periods of time they were either sick or they had really ticked their parents off and weren’t allowed out to play.  Staying inside was a punishment. Kids begged to go outside.  Of course (hang on to your hats, kids) we only had four television stations we could get on a black-and-white set. And so we were outside most of the time, for extended periods.  My parents wanted to know where I was going and told me when to be back, generally in time for meals.  Although there were probably perverts and child molesters roaming around then, I think there must have been fewer of them. Being outside was considered safe.  Of course, we had the whole neighborhood watching us at all times.  One time my buddies and I came across a book of matches (which wisely we were not allowed to have otherwise).  We amused ourselves for a while by setting small tufts of dry grass on fire and after we stomped them out went home because we were out of matches.  I hadn’t even gotten in the front door when my mother met me wanting to know what I thought I was doing setting fires in a vacant lot.  One of the neighbors had seen us and called her. So, we had a lot of friendly eyes watching us.  We didn’t think they were friendly on occasions such as our short-lived career as junior arsonists, but they were.
I remember one memorable outing I have written about in this space that  my brother and I took on our bicycles.  We were peeved at our parents so we decided we would run away.  I took a can of pork and beans from the kitchen and we set out, headed south from Fairfaxto wherever the road took us (probably Cliftonalthough we never got anywhere near it). The road went from paved to gravel to dirt and then turned into a path through the dense woods.  We came upon a clearing, and there were old rusted train tracks.  Since we were tired, we sat down, opened our beans and took turns eating them with sticks since we had neglected to bring forks.  It occurred to me that this would be a perfect place to live in a boxcar in the woods.  Under the influence of the Boxcar Children books, I imagined that as an ideal existence.  As I recall the books, the children who lived in a boxcar in the woods had no parents in evidence and that sounded pretty good to both of us. The sun set, and as the temperature dropped, we decided it would be wise to return home to a hot meal.  I vowed to find a boxcar to live in and have it moved there and also to learn how to cook beyond opening a can. I never did locate a boxcar or live in it in the woods. I did learn how to cook, after a fashion, many years later.
It’s entirely too bad that the world has changed and become a more dangerous place so that kids can’t run free (or amok) as we once did. I don’t know what to do to change that. I find myself thinking of the passage in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in which Holden Caulfield, thinking about the innocence of his sister Phoebe, imagines the children of the world playing in a large field of rye next to a cliff. He would catch them before they fell off the cliff, becoming “the catcher in the rye.” I wish we had big fields of rye or oats or barley where kids could play without worry. I know, we have organized sports for children, but it’s not the same. Although my children are far past the age where they want to run around in fields, I’d volunteer to take a turn watching the other children play outside without fear. They deserve it.

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A Story of Two Theaters

It has happened again.

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

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

And yet they keep happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Continuing No Shame Poetry Series Presents "Happy Landings"

Happy Landings
I am thinking of you tonight, Amelia Earhart
Because, frankly, so many of us can’t stop thinking about you
And I know you’re out there, somewhere,
You continue to tease us with
Pictures of your shy smile
Your pure countenance and
Little bits of your aircraft left behind
In the Pacific
Cosmetic bottles and cases
“Typical of the 1930’s” as careful reports say.
Come on! Come out!
Walk around any corner of any city in the U.S.A.
And I’ll have a news crew there to record your arrival.
Come back to us, First Lady of the Air.
We need you.

–Dan Verner

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Advice for Writers–The Right Metaphor

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

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

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

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

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


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Technology and Society– Fobbing It Off

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

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

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

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

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