Monthly Archives: October 2012

Tech Question of the Week

Q: Is it possible to leave a USB drive in the pocket of some pants, wash them, dry them and  have the data on the drive still be intact?

A: Yes.

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Happy Little Trees

Happy Little Trees and a Happy Little Bridge

I was hanging out with some other writers this past weekend (caution: do not attempt this unless you are a writer as well) when someone brought up Bob Ross. If you haven’t heard of Mr. Ross, he had a how-to-paint show, The Joy of Painting, on PBS for years. He was quite the personality, with an Afro hairdo and a gentle whisper of a voice as he painted landscapes with his signature “happy little trees” and “happy little clouds.” He made it look easy, but as anyone who has tried painting knows, it’s not.

Here’s a link with some more information about Ross:

Ross came up last Saturday when one of the writers was talking about her children watching his show after school as she was fixing dinner. She said his soothing voice seemed to calm them. His gentle whisper was in the PBS and NPR tradition of speaking slowly and gently (pace, Fred Rogers), satirized by a Saturday Night Live skit in which two hosts talk about “National…Public…Radio” and proceed to get drunk on non-alcoholic egg nog. “That’s some good ‘nog!” they say repeatedly as the scene slides into chaos.

But Bob Ross never slid into chaos. He talked about nature and told stories about his pet squirrel, Peapod (I always thought he was saying “Pee Pong”).  Our younger daughter Alyssa was especially taken with Ross’s show and talked about his painting and monologues. We actually have a Bob Ross how to paint book somewhere in the treasure trove of books in our house. I’ll have to go prospecting for it one day.

So, here’s to you, Bob Ross. Wherever you are (he passed away in 1995), I hope there are lots of happy little trees.

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On Pins and Needles

I was putting some screws into something the other day, I forget what,  using my favorite tool, my Dewalt cordless drill (18 volt),  and I struck several screws in my mouth to hold them–well, not really in my mouth but between my lips (don’t try this at home without adult supervision, boys and girls)–and I suddenly had a mental image of a woman working on a dress holding pins in her mouth as she pinned material.

I haven’t actually seen anyone do this for decades, but it got me to thinking about a time when people (women primarily) sewed for their friends and family or even to make a little money. Sitting in the waiting room of my dad’s doctor last week, I overheard two women talk about making all their own clothes and using patterns, and they seemed to be saying they made their own patterns. I wanted to ask them if they held pins in their mouths but the nurse called them back about that time, and that would have been an odd question to spring on someone an anyhow.

If you think about it, holding (non-toxic) things in one’s mouth is like having an extra hand–one without fingers, to be sure, but a mouth can hold a lot of different things. Mother cats carry their kittens in their mouths because, well, they don’t have hands. Sometimes if I have several bags to carry and don’t have a hand to get my door key out, I’ll hold the handles of the plastic bag in my mouth (dear dentist, please don’t read that last sentence).

I had an aunt who could look at a girl and make a dress that would fit her perfectly without measuring or trying on or using a pattern. I’m not sure what skills would be involved in doing this, but it almost seems miraculous to me.

The two ladies in the doctor’s office allowed as how no one had the time or money to make their own clothes. I know that knitting has had a kind of renaissance. Older daughter Amy is a knitter and she made me a really cool scarf. I can hardly wait for cold weather to wear it again.

I wonder if there will be a similar renaissance in sewing as a reaction to all the digital and technological devices that fill our lives. I remember my mom making clothes, mending and even darning socks. I’d like to think that somewhere, even now, a grandmother is showing her granddaughter how to sew a dress. A
and I’d like to think that the grandmother is holding pins in her mouth.


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Poem of the Week: Words for My Grandfather

Words for My Grandfather

In June of 1917 when I was 21
I signed up for the draft for the War
And created a mystery.
All my life I went by Lawrence Harrison Verner
But on the registration card
The registrar spelled my first name “Laurence”
And I signed as “Lorans.”
What would account for this?
I couldn’t spell my own name?
I made a mistake out of nerves?
I gave the registrar a French spelling
Because of bad feelings against Germans?
Whatever the cause, I left a mystery
For a grandson I never knew
Who bears my middle name
And who wrote these words for me.
–Danny Harrison Verner

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Rules for Writing–P. D. James

1 Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.

2 Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

3 Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

4 Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.

5 Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

from The Guardian

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Interview with Linda Johnston, Editor and Illustrator of Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory

Dan: Good morning, Linda, and welcome to the Extra Gravy Interview Show,  a somewhat irregular feature on Biscuit City, going out to all our readers and listeners on the Biscuit City Network. Welcome to our newly renovated glass-enclosed observation post.

Linda: Thanks! I’m glad to be here. I must say that the observation post is smaller than I expected.

Dan: I’ll admit it is cozy, but serviceable. Anyhow, I first met you at one of our Write by the Rails meetings which were held Monday evenings this summer. You had a manuscript copy of a portion of your book and I think it’s accurate to say everyone there was blown away by it. How did you get the idea for such a book?

Linda: When we lived in Kansas about twenty-five years ago, we lived close to an historic site on the Santa Fe Trail, just outside Kansas City. I was a guide there and one day while waiting on a group, I saw the diary of a pioneer woman on a shelf in the library. She had traveled the trail, and I became interested in similar diaries, particularly women’s stories.

I could identify with moving and leaving everything familiar behind since we had moved so much with my father in the Air Force and then after we married. My story, in a sense, was the same story as the pioneers.
 I continued to research and read pioneer diaries off and on for the next twenty years.  Although I had always wanted to do a book, five years ago I became serious about it and took a writing class at NOVA.  I did research at the Library of Congress and at the Kansas Historical Society when I visited my daughter who was in school at the University of Kansas. 

I should say that I also became interested in diaries kept by men. They were exceptionally observant and many wrote very well. Some of their script is beautiful as well.

My book tells my story as well. I am interested in art, nature and in the emotions of moving and going to a new place. They’re all there in the book.

Dan: It’s unusual for a book about pioneers to focus on the positive experiences in their lives. Why did you take that approach?

Linda: I asked myself, what did I want my readers to know about these pioneers? What was life like for them on the frontier? How did they cope with what they encountered? How would I have dealt with similar circumstances?  I went back to Kansas every year and found a few more diaries that intrigued me each time.
These people have become very real to me and an important part of my life and of my story. We’ve traveled together all these years.

The original diaries are time machines—they’re a direct connection to the past. When I hold one of them, I’m touching someone’s life.
I want to tell the readers about one man, Samuel Reader, who kept an illustrated diary from the time he was 14 until he was 80. That covered the span of years from about 1855 until 1915. Imagine having such a record of your life!  I have a photocopy of Samuel’s self-portrait above my computer.

Dan: How do people react to your book, generally?

Linda: People are enthusiastic about it and interested in it. It’s so personal, I want people to like what I’ve done. I’ve been fortunate to be able to sketch and paint. I keep travel journals and I illustrate them, which is what people did before the advent of inexpensive cameras.
So many people are turned off by history, but this is a book for those folks who normally would not pick up a book about history.  It shows a different perspective.   It’s the personal story of real people and their lives. I wanted to make history personal. It’s taking a look “between the ticks on the time line.” Anybody can read about people who made history: I want to write about people who are history.
I want people to understand that these pioneers had the same emotions, struggles and heartaches as we do. The context of their experience and understanding it are everything.

Dan:  Did you find a publisher while you were working on it or did that happen before you started?

Linda: Last October, I was at a Women Writing the West conference in Seattle.  Those attending had the opportunity to sign up and meet with editors and publishers who were presenters at the conference in order to pitch a book.  I did just that.  I met with Erin Turner, from Two Dot Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.  I thought targeting the regional imprint of a larger press would be a good fit for my book.  As it turned out, Erin loves Kansas history and has written two books on Kansas herself.  Also, I had had some experience talking about my project at a few other conferences and that proved helpful.
So, I prepped for my presentation. I had props—a picture of Samuel Reader, a leather covered diary and some of my paintings. I felt at ease with her and we connected. I sent my manuscript to her and touched base at Christmas and New Year’s. In March I got an email that she was interested in my book and needed some additional material, which I sent immediately. She sent a message that she was going to pitch the book to the publishing committee the next day.
She emailed me that afternoon after the committee presentation to tell me that they wanted to publish the book. I was so excited!
They sent a contract, and I hired an attorney to review it. That was costly, but it was worth every cent.

Dan: Please tell us about your trip to Kansas this summer to gather more information. You also did something when you discovered the graves of some of the people mentioned in your book. I thought that was very touching. Please be sure to tell us about that.

Linda: Last spring I received a grant from the Kansas Historical Society to complete my research.  I made a trip to Kansas in August to do that.  While I was there I gathered more information and met some fascinating people.  I also visited the gravesites of several of my writers, including Samuel Reader.  The experience was important and very special.
 We don’t usually hear the words, “pioneers” and “fun” used together. But they, like us, did have good times as well as bad.  That’s why the book is called Hope Amid Hardship.
 One settler, Joseph Savage, went to Kansas in 1854.  He went back to New England the following spring to get his wife and five children. . . He went back to New England, remarried, and returned to his farm in Kansas.  His experience shows the character of many early settlers.
That strength, along with hope for the future, got them through difficult times, including droughts in 1856 and 1860.  During that time, settlers received aid (clothing, money, and other supplies) from eastern states.  This helped them survive as well.
Another woman emigrated there, was homesick, and didn’t want to stay.  Her father-in-law would not allow her to leave, so she stayed. She wrote poetically about the wildflowers and nature, and although she might have been “sad and sorrowful” one day, the next day she went to church and recorded that Kansas had invigorated her and that she had never felt so good, that it was a “fairy land.”

Dan: Please tell us about some interesting people you met in the course of doing this book.

Linda: I got in touch with Bill Griffing, who had posted some of his ancestor’s (James) letters online.  James lived in Manhattan, Kansas Territory.  Another of my diarists, Thomas Wells, lived in Topeka but moved to Manhattan in 1870 and lived next door to James the rest of his life.  The two families became lifelong friends.  I was delighted to learn that two of my favorite writers were dear friends. After all, these are people that I have come to care about.  This illustrates the network of relationships that characterizes a society.

Dan: You have an interesting way of working on the book. Would you describe how that happens?

Linda: I paint for a week and then I write for a week, every day, eight to ten hours a day.

Dan: I might add that the paintings are charming and lovely. What sort of projects do you have planned in the future?

Linda: I might like to do a book on Pike’s Peak.  Many settlers traveled from the Kansas Territory to search for gold there.  I would also like to do a children’s nature book, maybe on nature journaling.  I participate in a writing workshop for fourth and fifth graders each summer and really enjoy that.   
As part of my book project, I would like to encourage kids to keep a journal and understand that their everyday lives are a part of history.  I will incorporate this into my website, which is my next big project once I have turned in my final manuscript.

Dan:  Wow! That’s quite a list. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Linda: I feel very blessed that this project is coming to fruition and involves all the things that I enjoy.

Dan: When does your book come out?

Linda: The launch date is August 13, 2013.  The book will be published by Two Dot Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. I’ve already got the caterer lined up for the release party!

Dan: I want to thank you for being our guest today, for an informative, far-ranging interview. We’re looking forward to seeing your book when it comes out. I’ll put a notice here when it does with some information about how our readers can get a copy. We wish you the best in your work!
 We’ve been talking with Linda Johnston, editor and illustrator of  Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from the Kansas Territory. It’s a beautiful book and one that I look forward to reading
This has been the Extra Gravy Interview on the Biscuit City Program, brought to you on the Biscuit City Network. Stay tuned for more interviews at irregular intervals. And so we bid you a fond farewell from the glass-enclosed observation tower.

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Uncle Jim and the Trebuchet of Doom

My friend Bob from college generally visited his Uncle Jim in New Jersey over summer vacation or during spring or winter break. One year, however, the college gave us a four day fall break and Bob, as usual, took off for the farm in New Jersey so, he said, he would live to graduate in the spring.

The crops were all in, so Bob said Uncle Jim had plenty of time to think of projects, which was always a dangerous thing.

Jim had seen a special on PBS about catapults and trebuchets, and that got him to thinking. When Bob arrived for his visit, he saw a large trebuchet sitting in the farm yard. It was made of scrap metal that Jim had lying around. Bob thought maybe Jim had built it for pumpkin chunking, but Jim told him he planned to use it to jerk pine stumps out of the ground. He had clear cut some pine trees to free up land for cultivation. A logging company had come and taken the trees away, leaving the stumps, which Jim said he would take care of.

Normally he would have blown the stumps out of the ground with a mixture of fertilizer and diesel fuel, but Dot didn’t like the noise and it frightened the livestock, so he was left with pulling them out with the tractor.This was a difficult, tedious task and usually involved more digging than pulling. In truth, Bob was glad to hear that Jim had come up with another way to take the stumps out since he operated the shovel that dug out around the stumps.

The next morning, Bob and Jim were out early, towing the trebuchet to the nearest stump. Dot had left to visit a neighbor, saying she did not want to be around when one of the stumps landed on the house.

Bob dug under the first stump (some digging was involved but not as much otherwise) and ran a chain under it. Jim hooked the chain to the arm of the trebuchet. Bob stood clear and Jim triggered the machine. The arm whipped forward, pulling the stump out of the ground with a huge “POP!” The stump sailed heavenward, over the house, landing square on a shed that Jim kept tools in, flattening the structure and scattering hoes, shovels, rakes and other hand implements for a hundred feet all around.

Bob and Jim stood there for a moment, unable to speak. Finally Jim said, “Guess we’ll use the tractor.”

Dot came back a few hours later. She surveyed the damage and said, “Well, boys, at least you didn’t hit the house.”

Jim and Bob didn’t say anything. They went in to eat lunch half an hour later and then settled down to watch PBS for a while. “You know,” said Dot, “It’s too bad there aren’t any more seiges of castles. You fellows could make some money renting yourselves out to the highest bidder.”

Jim and Bob didn’t say anything. Dot started giggling and pretty well kept it up the rest of the afternoon.

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The Story of the Homeowner and the Fence

Once there was this homeowner who wanted to fix his old fence. The old fence had rotted boards and was in general disrepair. The homeowner took his tools and bought some nice pickets at the picket store and replaced all the broken and rotted bits in the fence and put up the new pickets, changing the fence from a board fence to a picket fence. When this hard-working homeowner was nearly finished, a nice man from the jurisdiction the homeowner lived in came by and said, “You need a permit for your fence.”

The homeowner was puzzled at this. He thought he would have needed a permit had the fence been new, but it wasn’t. It was about half-new and he supposed he was doing maintenance on the old fence and did not need a permit.

The nice man from the zoning department disagreed and said, “This looks like a new construction to me, so you need a permit.”

The homeowner said, “…”

So the honest hardworking homeowner went to the zoning office to fill out an application for a permit. The nice people there told him he had to have a “plat” of his property which he didn’t have because of an ancient curse put on his mortgage documents (JK). The nice people conferred for about 15 minutes and then said he could submit a sketch, which he did.

They looked at the sketch in wonderment and said, “This fence is the same place as the other one.”

The homeowner allowed as how they were right.

The nice people said, “We’ll call you when your permit is ready. You give us a bag of gold then and we’ll give you the permit.”

The homeowner went home and waited. Sure enough, the nice man called from the zoning department and said, “How tall is your magic fence?”

“As tall as a dwarf, or about 42 inches,” came the reply.

“Well, then, you don’t need a permit because your magic fence is under four feet.”

“I knew that,” said the homeowner.

And then he said, “…”

The moral of this story: Sometimes there’s nothing to say.

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Poem of the Week–Preparing for My Absence

This is based on a line in an email from a friend. She wrote, “I am preparing for my absence next week.” I thought that an evocative phrase and the result was this poem.

Preparing for My Absence

Preparing for my absence
I realize I have never been away from myself
Unless you want to count sleep
Which really doesn’t because, after all
I’m still there with myself.
So, I am preparing to be away from myself
I don’t know for how long
And I’m not telling where I’m going
In case I should find out and
Tag along with myself.
I’ll be out, not available, incommunicado,
Hors de combat
And if anyone needs me
Including me
I’m not here
And I’m not there, either.

–Dan Verner


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Advice for Writers–Tools and Techniques of the Trade

Regular readers of this blog will probably be glad to know this will be the last post on carpentry and writing. Until I think of another one using that metaphor.

Ironically, I finished my big fence project and the first draft of my novel the same day. I thought some more about the similarities involved in producing both.

Obviously I had to use tools–hammer, cordless drill, screws, level, square, pencil, cord, nails–to build the fence. Or I should say to build it so it looked right. If I hadn’t used a level, for example, it would have been one crooked fence.

There are tools for writing. I am not going to say thesaurus, dictionary, pen, paper because those are shopworn. I never had much use for a thesaurus anyhow. It’s no substitute for having an adequate vocabulary and knowing when to use the right word. One writer said to get a thesaurus and put it in the shed. Sounds like a plan to me.

So, the tools I would suggest having include a word processor. You can use what you like, but writing with a computer is so much easier.

The second tool I think you need is a knowledge of literature. See how it has been done before (pace, Bare Naked Ladies). Read. Read all you can. Then read some more. You’ll see how to do it and how not to do it.

As I mentioned already, a good vocabulary is a tool. To acquire one, read. Read all you can. Etc.

I also think you need a good sense of what is significant to put in your writing. If we wanted to read an endless series of non-events we’d read the phone book.

Cultivate a sense of exposition and description in your writing and learn how to balance them.

With my fence, I tried to make it plumb, level and square. It looks better that way, but in truth, with most constructions, it’s not. It only looks that way, and you want to make sure your writing is plumb, level and square–or that it seems like it is. That means it should be, in some way, true. There’s a lot more to say about this and I’ll devote a post to it later.

The last tools are patience and perseverance. When you think you’ve been over your writing enough, go over it again. My brother refinishes guitars. He devotes hours to hand sanding with progressively finer grits of sandpaper. That is the only way that the instrument will have a smooth finish. The same thing for your writing. Going over and over and over it will produce a polished piece, one of truth and excellence.

That’s all I have to say about that for now. And so, have at it!

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