Monthly Archives: August 2012

The No Shame Poetry Series Presents "Train Song"

Train Song

I’m sorry, but this is not
Your “father’s magic carpet made of steel.”
The modern coaches bump and sway
And rattle over renewed railwork
Pulled by diesel electrics of
Brutal power

But in this insular world
That sometimes glides
Sometimes lurches
I think of
Track laid by hand for thousands of miles
Tunnels dug by pick and blasted by black powder
Work done by dispossessed Irish and Chinese

The long train shakes and rattles
And yet
It works, as imperfect and as glorious
As we.

–Dan Verner

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Advice for Writers–Walking in Rhythm

Well, truth be told, this is not so much about walking in rhythm (which was a wonderful song by Howard University’s Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds a while back–check it out at as it is about paying attention to rhythm in writing.

Now, I’m not talking about the rhythm of a sentence or the rhythm of speech reproduced in prose or even about rhythm in poetry. Those are important because without rhythm in our speech we would sound like one of those robots or androids in a sci-fi movie. In a related matter (I’m digressing–shocker!), don’t you just hate it when you make a call to some business and you get one of those voice recognition programs that can’t recognize its own mother? I want to say, “No, I won’t say ‘one’ to speak to a person. Let me press ‘one’ please for the love of mercy.” To which the robo-speaker replies, “I could not understand your comment. Please repeat. To speak to a person, say ‘One…'”

Or worse, when you’re trying to get the thing to understand where you want to fly.

Robovoice: “Please speak the name of your destination.”
You: “I want to go to Washington, D.C.”
Robovoice: “You want to go to Washington State. Is that correct?”
You: “No, I want to go to Washington, the District of Columbia.”
Robovoice: “You want to go to Colombia. Is that correct?”
You: “No, I want to go to the CITY of Washington, D.C.”
Robovoice: “You want to go to Cincinnatti, Ohio. Is that correct?”
You: “No, I want to go to Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C.!”
Robovoice: “You want to go to Duluth, Minnesota. Is that correct?”
You: “No! Is there a person I can talk to, please?”
Robovoice: “You want to go to Paris, France. Is that correct?”

I think you get the idea.

Anyhow, this post is about the larger rhythms of prose writing, specifically, the rhythm of using description in which you as a writer (hang on here) describe things for a while and let the pace of the story marinate in its own goodness for a while, and in using exposition in which things happen and the story moves ahead. I suppose it would be possible to use all description in a story but not much would happen. We would have some nice description a flora and fauna or people in a city, have no idea as to what was going on. We as humans want to know what’s going on.

Conversely, if we had only exposition, we would know something was happening but we wouldn’t know where or when or why or wherefore it was.

Here’s the point: we need both in some sort of larger rhythm to keep people reading and to help them understand in an immediate and, in a larger sense, in the immortal words of Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On.” ( When to use each is a matter of judgment. So break out some rhythm in your story. You will happier and your readers will, too.

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Technology Wednesday: Trains and Planes and Automobiles

Maybe it’s having spent about three days aboard a train recently, but I have been thinking a lot about trains and especially about older and newer forms of technology. Passenger trains have been around for about 200 years, and passenger airplanes for, let’s say, about 90 or so.

While aboard the train, I heard a number of riders talking about trains as a superior means of transportation. The atmosphere is more relaxed, you can walk around, you can look at the scenery, etc. Of course, if you don’t want to take two days to get to the West Coast from Chicago, you can take a plane. I thought of these people as being like those who favor paper books over e-readers, and really, there are advantages to both forms, just as there are advantages to trains and to airplanes.

When home computers were first introduced, people tried to use them to store recipes, which could then be brought up on the computer to fix a dish. The idea didn’t catch on for obvious reasons. I wouldn’t want Hollandaise sauce all over my Toshiba laptop, like many other people. So, computers: good for word processing; not better than the recipe box for storing recipes.

We experienced a similar advantage to older technology this past month. We flew down to Durham N.C. to visit some friends. Door to door, it took five and a half hours. About ten days later, tragically, the lady died, and we needed to return so Becky could play for her funeral. I calculated that it would be faster to drive, as it is with distances of less than  300 miles or so. It took us four hours and twenty minutes to do so. Advantage: driving.

So, it’s not the newness or sophistication of the technology that counts: it’s the suitability of the technology for the task at hand. And that is a matter for human judgment.

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Cross Country by Rail

Day 1: August 24, 2012
3:45 PM: We boarded the train (on time at 11:57 AM) in Manassas. The crew was very friendly and helpful Our roomette sleeper was very compact. Dad and I are sitting knee to knee with our luggage piled around us. Note to self—just bring one not too big suitcase if I do this again.
Got to Charlottesville in just under two hours. The scenery is beautiful and different from what one sees from the road.
Lunch was good and we had a nice conversation with a lady and her high school sophomore son who were on their way to the Greenbrier. They had been in DC for a week and would go home to Cincinnatti after their stay at the Greenbrier.

We have amused ourselves by reading, napping and looking out the window. We’re somewhere west of Staunton, running about 20 minutes behind. Next stop isCLifton Forge in about half an hour.

4:30 PM

Stopped at Clifton Forge, last stop in Virginia. I’ve moved to the club car where there’s a table I can type (keyboard) on and have a little more leg room. Then sun’s out. There was an old steam loco in a beautiful green livery marked “The Homestead,” which is near here. I looked into thje coach car which seems to have more legroom than we have. I wouldn’t want to sleep there for three nights, though, so our little roomette will do fine when it comes to sleeping. And I can use the club car to work in and look at the scenery.

6:50 PM

Just leaving Beckley WV. Had a nice dinner with a lady whom we know by means of her sister, who died a few years ago. She is on her way to Montana. We also got to know a young woman who is going to work at a hotel in Death Valley and who will be working on a book, free from distractions. We talked writing for a while and now we’re back in our sleeperette reading, looking at the scenery (most notably the Greenbrier River, which runs beside the tracks) and thinking about bed in about three hours. 

Day 2: August 25, 2012
6:00 AM

We’re in Indianapolis, where there is a scheduled layover of about an hour. Sleeping on the train was not too bad—the berth was comfortable and I was able to read for a while. The train would inexplicably stop during the night in the middle of nowhere. I guess they have their ways. We get to Chicago about 10, where we have a four-hour layover.

2:35 PM

We’re on the California Zephyr, waiting our turn on some single-tracking road work south of Chicago. We got into Chicago and 10:15 this morning, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out we were eligible to wait the four hours for our train in the First Class (Sleeping Car) Lounge. There were free drinks (non-alcoholic) and snacks and we talked to some interesting and nice people
We boarded at 1:15 and are settled in compartment 3 of the last of three sleeping cars. The Amtrak employees have been to a person helpful, good-natured and well-informed. When I asked our car attendant this morning why the train stopped for periods of time, she replied that mostly it was to let freight trains pass (they pay the freight, ha ha) and in one case it was so an obstreperous passenger could be taken off by police. I suppose that counts as drama on the rails.

I would also advise any two people sharing a roomette on a trip like this to pack one large suitcase which can be stored and a carry-on that contains essentials that you need for each day. Also, don’t count on wi fi. I’m getting some things out on my iPhone, for which reception has been fairly consistent.  Another thing I would do is bring snacks. The sleeping car has a stock of water, coffee and juices, but unless you want to pay an expectedly high price for Nabs, bring your own.

7:15 PM

We crossed into Iowa about 5:30, and I can report that it too is flat and covered with crops. Much of the corn looks like it has been burned up by the drought. It’s a sad sight—acre after acre and mile after mile of brown corn stalks. I suppose all that it’s good for is sileage, and that’s not worth very much from what I hear.

We move into Nebraska about 11 tonight and traverse the state in the dark. With the light will come Colorado and what I hear are some truly spectacular views and vistas. I’m looking forward to it.

Day 3: August 26, 2012
7 AM
We’re about 40 minutes outside Denver and the land is still flat. I thought we’d be among the mountains, but that shows how much I know about geography.

If you take one of these trains, bring your appetite. Every meal is about twice as much as I can eat. Too bad there aren’t refrigerators in the rooms, If there were, we’d end up sitting on them because everything is crammed in. It makes me think of the Apollo spacecraft (and by the way, Neil Armstrong passed away yesterday. He was indeed a brave and resourceful pioneer who always acknowledged the thousands of people who put him on the moon.)

More later as we get into the mountains. Singin’ “Rocky Mountain High!”

8:45 AM

We’re moving through the western suburbs of Denver, and I see mountains! At least, I think they’re mountains. Maybe they’re just foothills since they don’t look high enough to be mountains. Yes, I know I am an amazing geologist. Not.

Neither am I a botanist. The vegetation looks subtly different here, although I can’t say what the difference is. I suppose that climate and altitude make a difference. Wow. I should be a horticulturist as well.
More later as we get into the mountains…if these are foothills now…
10:45 AM

We’re on the western slopes of the Rockies, and the passage through the mountains was magnificent! Seeing them in a video or picture or reading a description doesn’t begin to do justice to the beauty and grandeur of these slopes. We’re going to be going through the western slopes for about three more hours so there should be plenty of beautiful scenery ahead.

2:30 PM

We went through the Gore Gorges which were formed by the Colorado River. I am struck by the size of geological formations here, having never seen these in the West. The Colorado in this section has a number of fisherpeople and rafters, some of whom have a tradition of mooning the train as it goes by. The train crew calls the Colorado “Moon River,” in fact!

We cross into Utah about 7:30 this evening, which I understand is mostly desert. Until then it’s Colorado, Colorado, Colorado all the way!

The mountains and foothills of the Rockies shifted to huge outcroppings of folded rock. I would call them mesas but they didn’t have flat tops. Then, somewhere around 5 PM, the landscape changed  to a desert with huge piles of what looked like either sand or gravel. And apparently we crossed into Utah, with notice, without a sound. And so, Utah this evening, Nevada early tomorrow morning and California in mid-morning. We are “winning near the goal” as Keats said about something else entirely.

Day 4 August 27, 2012
6:00 AM

One advantage to staying on Eastern time is that you’re up before anyone else. We were up at 4:30 local time. Alyssa said that when she travels she stays on Eastern time.

We’re about two and a half hours out of Reno. I have to confess that I hit a kind of wall last night. I felt like I had been on a train forever and would never be able to get off. I was tired of looking at desert, too. I was unfocused to write and wanted some room to spread out in. It just shows how hard it is for me (us) to relax. I’m anticipating getting off the train about 5, getting to Oakland Airport, boarding a plane about 11 and being home about 7 AM (Eastern Time). I feel better after a night’s sleep. Shakespeare was right: “Sleep, that knits up the raveled sleeve of care…” Rock on, Will S.!

10:00 AM

After a stop in Reno (the conductor advised passengers not to get off and hit the slots at the station. People have been left doing so, apparently), we came into California and the little town of Truckee.

We are in the Sierras now and we’re entering some spectacular scenery. I’ll take a break and take some pictures and then come back and talk about the people we’ve met on the train.

I think I wrote about the wonderful quality of the meals. I’ve also enjoyed talking to people we’ve shared a table with. With one exception, people were open and friendly, and talked openly of their travels and experiences. We talked with people from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Chicago and other stations on our route, as well as Scotland and England.. I talked with railroad employees, teachers, writers,  and government workers.

I have to also say something about the friendliness and competence of every Amtrak employee we came across. We had most contact with our sleeping car attendant, Stephanie, who was friendly, energetic, helpful and knowledgeable. She kept a special eye out for my dad when he couldn’t find his way back to our room a couple of times and brought my dad some meals when he found it difficult to walk the length of three cars to the dining car. When the toilets failed on our sleeping car (there were plenty on the other sleeping cars), she took it personally, apologizing profusely and telling us how to contact Amtrak for a refund or ticket credit. The air conditioning kept popping a breaker, and she would reset it about every twenty minutes. I have never met such a dedicated, personable hard-working young woman. Amtrak should be very proud of her!

2:30 PM

Let’s see…we ate our last meal aboard the train and came through Sacramento. We’re running about 15 minutes ahead of schedule and should be in Emeryville early. From there we transfer to another train for Oakland, catch a cab for the airport and an 11 PM flight to Dulles, arriving at 6:50 AM local time.
I’ll have some reflections on the trip Tuesday after I get home, unpack and take a nap. First things first.

Day 5 August 28,, 2012

9:00 AM

Our overnight flight from Oakland was early, so here I am at home and happy to be here. I couldn’t help contrasting the tension and pressure of air travel with the relaxed nature of life aboard a long-distance train. I’m glad we went, but I wouldn’t want to do it again any time soon. Now for a nice nap to catch up on lost sleep!

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Riding on the California Zephyr

Well, here we are on Amtrak, after having ridden through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen between Denver and Provo, Utah. I’ve read about these vistas, seen pictures of them and seen them in movies and videos. But nothing–nothing matches the pure beauty and grandeur of these magnificent landscapes .

My dad and I had both wanted to make this trip, so we are. We won’t be home until Tuesday morning, so I’ll post this from the train Monday morning and have a longer post Tiesday.

Stay tuned!

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A Special Announcement and The Continuing No Shame Poetry Series Presents "Driving to a Funeral"

Special announcement:
Today about noon my 87-year-old father and I will board a train in Manassas (where we live) for a father-son trip to the West Coast. We will go through Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno and into California, where we will end up in Oakland late Monday afternoon. From there, we will go to Oakland Airport and board a Jet Blue red-eye which will get us back to Dulles about 7 AM next Tuesday.
I will try to do posts each day on the journey. I understand that wi fi is spotty on long-distance Amtrak trains, so it that doesn’t work I will try posting something every day via my i-Phone with a complete report next week.
If I’m able to post and you’re able to follow our travels, I hope you will enjoy the account!
And now for our poem of the week, occasioned by driving to a funeral a week ago, and driving to other funerals other places, other times.

Driving to a Funeral

There is something elemental
About driving to a funeral.
It is different from other drives,
A journey undertaken for a journey,
A destination for a destination.

We travel without saying much
And what little conversation there is
Moves back to the matter at hand:
“He was a fine fellow”
“She was a gracious lady.”

The miles slide by
And we remember.
We are driving, traveling,
Each of us,
On that journey
To a shared destination.

–Dan Verner

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Advice for Writers–Inch by Inch, Row by Row

Some of you fellow folkies out there will recognize this line as part of a John Denver song entitled “Garden Song” which is, not surprisingly, about a garden. Here’s part of it:

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground

Inch by inch, row by row
Someone bless these seeds I sow
Someone warm them from below
‘Til the rain comes tumbling down

There! Doesn’t that make you feel all mellow and good and like you want to haul out the six-strings and twelve-strings and banjos and mandolins and washtub basses and harmonicas and fiddles and mandolins and any other instrument you can think of and sing chorus after chorus until the sun is coming up? I know that’s what it does  for me, and I even had a job once.

The principle of growing a garden applies to a number of processes. I think it’s called accretion. If you add a little something to a little something else, pretty soon you have something bigger (I am so smart). Think stalagmites in Luray Caverns–a little drip of mineral-laden water, a few tens of thousands of years and voila! a stalagmite of your very own to be keep and be proud of.

I think this applies to writers in that if you write a little bit (or even a lot) each day, after a while you’ll have more. It’s just a matter of doing it–well, doing it and making sure it’s good and revising it again and again. Sounds pretty simple, even though it does take a fair amount of discipline and know-how.

I write about 1000 words each weekday on my novel, and now, after about two and a half months, I have 50,000 words, enough that I have to keep a note card on each character at this point so they’re not wearing a green dress at the beginning of a chapter and a yellow one at the end (this actually happened). In about another two and a half months, I should have a novel, which, when gone over about fifty times, should be ready to show to some people (if they’re not entirely tired of hearing about it). I don’t write quickly, but I like to think I write good. And as I do, I find my self singing with each word I add to the pile,

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground

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Talking Stores

I heard on the radio that stores will soon begin talking to their customers. No, not store clerks, but the products themselves. A customer walks into a store and the merchandise suggests itself or accessories to go with it. That’s just eerie. It reminds me of the scene in Minority Report in which the Tom Cruise character goes into some sort of clothing store (sorry for the vagueness–if it’s not a bookstore or a hardware store it doesn’t register on my consciousness) and the clothing or mannequins or something greet him by name and  suggest some things he might like to buy. If this happened to me I would probably run screaming into the night.

But, really, it’s not too different from what does. Have you ever noticed that if you’re searching for something on their site (or better yet), buy something, that the page pops up suggestions about similar merchandise that you might want to buy. Now, I don’t find that creepy but rather helpful. There’s something about a smooth voice emanating from an end cap trying to get me to buy something that raises my hackles.

And, actually, didn’t invent the idea. I think it came from a bookstore in Seattle (more precision retail knowledge, I know). The clerks observed where the customers browsed and even if they didn’t buy anything, the booksellers would try to engage the customer in conversation about the subjects they seemed interested in. Like, but with people. If the customer brought something to the register, they could suggest similar items. Smart? You bet! Creepy? Not at all–until the clothes in a store start talking to me.

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Easily Amused

One of the great things about writing this blog is the people who tell me about reading it.  Sometimes it reminds them of an experience or memory they had; sometimes they agree with what I say (and sometimes they disagree, but as the kids say, it’s all good).  I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read this and to let me know that they have read it.  One lady of my acquaintance who is both fashionable and intelligent said to me a few weeks ago, “I really liked what you said in your column this week.”
I quickly began thinking of all the insightful and resonant ideas and images that were in the piece.  However, as sometimes happens, I couldn’t remember what it was about. “Which one in particular?” I asked her, stalling for time and insight.
“I liked where you said you were easily amused,” she answered. “That’s really important.” She went on to say if more people were easily amused the world would be a better place.  I thought hers was a great insight. And it is so true that I am easily amused.
One interest that I have that proves I am easily amused is that I like baseball.  I know, some people would rather watch paint dry than sit through a baseball game, but even with the long periods of time in a game where it seems nothing is happening (or actually nothing is happening), baseball fascinates me.  There is such subtlety to the game and so many combinations of circumstance. Did you know, for example, there are eight ways for a batter to reach first base? (Answers at the end of this piece.)
I am also entertained by grocery stores.  Most people, I would say, go to grocery stores to buy food and most of them find the trip a necessity.  I could spend all day in a grocery store.  There is such an abundance and variety.  There is produce no one has ever heard of! There are ten or twelve varieties of potato chips!  There are dozens of kinds of cheese!  There is so much to look at, I would think anyone would be amused by it all. We are fortunate to have such choice. Prices, of course, are another matter that we won’t go into here.
I also find certain programs on television fascinating.  One is Unwrapped on the Food Channel.  This program is hosted by Marc Summers who used to emcee a program called Double Dare which my children loved. One of the features of Double Dare which kids couldn’t get enough of was the regular sliming of people on the show.  The slime was a nasty-looking green stuff that poured from the ceiling onto some of the hapless youngsters at intervals.  I was never sure why. Anyhow, after watching Unwrapped for a while, it occurred to me that many of the programs are much the same. They deal with the mass production of a food (cookies, potato chips, taco shells). The process starts with thousands of pounds of ingredients being combined in huge mixers. Then the dough or batter or whatever results from the mixing is dealt out by huge automated machines.  Then it’s baked in an oven hundreds of feet long, packaged, put into boxes and shipped to consumers.  Although I can predict how the product is going to be made, there’s still plenty to keep my interest.  Who designs these machines? How long do they last? How can people stand all day culling rejects? What happens when one of the machines breaks down?  Who fixes them?  You can see that there is much to think about.
I hope you have some things that amuse and entertain you. There’s something almost everywhere you look, if you think about it.  And oh, the eight ways to get to first base? 1) hit, 2) walk, 3) hit by pitch, 4) reach on an error, and 5) reach on a fielder’s choice, 6) catcher drops strike three, and the batter reaches first without being put out; 7) catcher’s interference; and 8) a fielder obstructs the runner on his way down to first base. Now you know!


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Memory, Part 2

Don’t worry, no singing involved with this post, either.

I need one of these!

I had written about how most of my daily activities center around doing whatever will help me remember what to take where and also when something is going to happen.

There’s a sub-category of forgetfulness, and that has to do with packing for a trip. We have been more places this summer than usual and several “incidents” have occurred.

I invariably forget one thing when I travel. Usually it’s something easily replaced such as shampoo.

Other times, it’s not so easy. Last summer, when we went to state music camp, I forgot to pack a spare pair of reading glasses, which I could have used when one of those tiny little screws fell out of the glasses I had taken. Luckily, Becky had an extra pair and I used those until we could get to Sears Optical and the nice lady replaced the screw. For free. That was nice.

This summer, I forgot the charger for my phone. Walgreens to the rescue!

I also have forgotten to take socks and spent time that trip chasing around Williamsburg looking for a pair. The most important item I had forgotten heretofore was the shirt for my tux. I replaced it in Williamsburg at an exclusive men’s shop that charged an exclusive price for a tux shirt. Live and learn, you’d think.

Another time we wanted to go to a funeral connected to a church family while we were in Lynchburg. I had only packed shorts and sandals (and shirts, etc.), but I didn’t want to show up at the funeral in shorts. So, we went by the local Belk and I bought some slacks. Which I wore with my sandals. Casual but respectful, I hoped.

This past weekend, though, we drove to a funeral in Durham and guess what I left? My suit. And the shirt. And shoes. And socks and a tie. (I was wearing a belt.) The whole outfit was in a nice garment bag, safely lying on the bed. When I realized it we were three hours down the road and there was no going back. So, we went off to Kohl’s in Durham and Becky helped me outfit myself. I rather like the ensemble she came up with.

So, these things happen.I was sharing my genius with some people at the reception and they allowed as how they had forgotten matched shoes for a wedding (not easily duplicated), a tux jacket, and a bridesmaid’s dress. In every case there was a workaround. We’ve participated in those, even one time scaring up a tuxedo for a performer who had forgotten his.

So I guess I don’t feel so bad about my packing memory problems. But, in any case, I’m going to start using a checklist. If only I can remember to do so.

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