January is a time for new beginnings; nowhere is that more true than in the garden.
A difficult task for newcomers to Western North Carolina who want to garden, or for first-timers to gardening, is an absence of good information on what vegetables to begin planting when.
The N.C. Cooperative Extension Service has when-to-begin lists on its website and at local offices. Frankly, though useful as a baseline, the state’s lists aren’t in my experience particularly helpful. That’s because the agency isn’t daring in its recommended growing practices, doesn’t factor in the use of protective covering and compiled the lists with traditional growers in mind.
Nothing wrong with any of those things, but traditional WNC growers were and are more interested in summer produce: corn, tomatoes, okra and squash. There’s much more out there than that. And much more fun to be had during our lengthy growing season than in just planting traditional garden mainstays.
If you have a greenhouse, an indoor growlight setup or a sunny place near the window, you can get started with this year’s garden now. During my stint farming in Bryson City I compiled a seed-starting list. I thought I’d share the first few months of the year in this space, and perhaps the remainder of the list in upcoming columns. I do need to take the time to tweak the list based on later farming journals I kept. Some of the Asian vegetables I became interested in aren’t well represented.
A few caveats are in order. Bear in mind that I was growing for farmers markets, and that I was farming for a financial living. This meant I was aggressive with my start dates. I wanted to be the first into market, if possible, with various vegetables. Factor in that I was farming at about 2,000 feet in elevation on a southerly slope. The average last frost date in that location is May 10. If you live in higher elevations, adjust my starting dates by roughly two (or more) weeks.
• First round cabbage, broccoli to plant later under row cover.
Last week January
• Second round cabbage, broccoli (can continue planting in greenhouse through February as needed).
• Peppers (can continue into February as needed, helps germination to start on a heating mat. Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers).
• Artichokes (you can “trick” artichokes into growing in WNC by introducing the plants to various temperatures in their first weeks of life. Perhaps I’ll write on that topic more fully at a later date).
First week February
• Head lettuces.
• Chives, thyme, other herbs (continue planting through February, March as needed).
Second or third week February
In garden toward end of February, first week of March weather permitting, (be prepared to cover transplants when temperatures threaten to drop lower than 20 degrees):
• Transplant lettuce, broccoli and cabbage into garden.
• Direct seed leaf lettuce, snow peas, English peas, carrots, boc choi, onion sets, spinach, radishes, beets (keep succession growing through late winter into spring).
First week March
• Start tomatoes in greenhouse (Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers in greenhouse).
• Start eggplant.
Second week March
• Plant potatoes in garden.
• Direct seed kohlrabi in the garden.
• In greenhouse, marigolds, zinnias, ageratum, if you enjoy cutting flowers.
Continue transplanting in greenhouse. Direct seed in garden:
• Beets, onion sets (for green onions), radishes.
• Direct seed cilantro, pole or bush beans, first planting of soybeans, and sweet corn when the soil warm (old-timers here in the mountains planted early corn when the dogwood blooms).
Early to mid May
• Plant leek transplants into garden.
• Direct seed okra into garden.
• Direct seed basil, can plant later, too, to have with ripe tomatoes.
Succession soybeans, beets, onion sets, radishes.
• Direct seed summer squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkin.
• Transplant tomatoes, eggplants and peppers as weather permits.
• Direct seed red noodle bean (an Asia bean I’m particularly fond of).
Mid to late May
• Direct seed winter squash, spaghetti and butternut squashes.
• Under row cover, grow succession plantings of summer ‘lettuce’ mix: mizuna, kale, collards, tatsoi, red giant mustard, arugula. Use as cut-and-come again, harvest immature for raw salads. Replant short row every two weeks or so for summer use.
• Plant sweet potato slips.
• Plant chard, if haven’t already, also Malabar spinach, dill.
It was pouring last Wednesday as I drove home, the cold rain painting the winter landscape a dull grey. Standing on the sidewalk outside the Haywood County Courthouse was a single peace protester, his raincoat losing the battle against the forces of nature. The lone sentinel was from a group that has stood watch each Wednesday at the courthouse for years, I believe since a short time after the Iraq invasion in March 2003. I think on this day it was Doug Wingeier, a peace activist who has penned letters and guest columns in this paper and others, a man who has traveled the world to promote peace and understanding, a person whom I’ve admired from afar for years.
I usually honk in solidarity with the protesters. It would be incorrect to label myself a pacifist, but I certainly identify with those who advocate an end to war and the settling of political divisions that send too many people to early graves from bombs, bullets, starvation or sickness. I also tap on my horn as a symbol of support for these individuals themselves, who with their stoic, multi-year vigil are a living example of standing up for one’s ideals.
On this day, however, I almost missed Doug and therefore did not get to acknowledge his efforts. I also didn’t have time to read his sign, so I don’t know what it may have said. I could see the magic marker running down the cardboard, though, reminding me of a mother’s tear-streaked eye make-up.
It was the news on the radio that had my attention. U.S. Marines had been videotaped pissing on the bodies of insurgents they (presumably) had killed in Afghanistan. The news had just broke, so condemnation was pouring in from U.S. government and foreign leaders. Inhumane. Disgraceful. Deplorable. I had watched the video prior to leaving the office, and it was painful to watch the smirking young soldiers do the deed.
I won’t talk about how idiotic these soldiers were for taking part in this episode and then for letting it be filmed. They deserve to be reprimanded, perhaps court-martialed. We can rest assured the military will take stern measures.
Most Americans know nothing of war, don’t even know what it’s like as civilians to make sacrifices for a war effort. The latter is, in its own way, shameful. We can read books and watch video footage and get the idea, but that’s not real. When it’s your life or the guy in the bunker across the valley, or when a friend is in mortal danger, things happen. You act, and what you do may not leave a sense of pride, but you just do it. I grew up in a military town as Vietnam was ending, and I had many very good friends with fathers who were just never right after that war. They had lost something, and many of those men are reaching the end of their lives still trying to get it back.
Wars are promulgated by leaders in nice suits sitting in soft chairs in Kabul and Washington, by warlords in the Middle East fighting for a way of life in a place where most have never experienced what Americans know as freedom. They are the ones who put those young Marines out in the desert where all they can do is try to survive and find their way home, where mistakes will be made, and we would do well to remember that before throwing out blanket condemnations.
War is inhumane, disgraceful, deplorable. Those peace activists standing out there in front of the Haywood County Courthouse every Wednesday trying to get our politicians to end these wars have been trying to tell us that for all these years.
In spite of Scott McLeod’s assertion that “it would be hard to argue otherwise” in his column (“Vote on NCAE dues a slap in the face to teachers,” The Smoky Mountain News, Jan 11 edition), I am going to give it a try.
I am not an apologist for the N.C. House of Representatives, but their leadership determines their agenda, not the governor. The legislature was called back into session to consider the veto override of S9, No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty. The Senate overrode the veto in a 31-19 partisan vote. The House did not have the votes but instead referred it to the House Committee on Judiciary for future consideration.
Speaker Thom Tillis has been very candid from the start in telling members that the governor’s vetoes could be considered at any time when the legislature is in session. Consequently, since they were in session they brought up the governor's veto of S727, “No Dues Checkoff for School Employees.” The Senate overrode the veto on July 13, 2011. The House overrode the veto in the early morning hours of Jan. 5. Two Democratic House members were absent due to illness and one Republican member is deployed in Afghanistan. The speaker had the votes to override two other vetoes but chose not to do so at that time.
There has been much misinformation put forward about S727. It is not an assault on teachers or education, merely an end to the practice of the state being the dues collection agency for the NCAE. The citizens of North Carolina should not be forced to bear the cost for collecting NCAE dues. That should be the responsibility of the NCAE. I am sure the teachers that choose to be NCAE members can find an alternative to the automatic dues checkoff, e.g., electronic funds transfer from their personal checking account.
Considering the NCAE is a thinly veiled lobbying group for Democrats, it should be no surprise that it does not have many sympathizers in the Republican ranks. More than 98 percent of the NCAE campaign donations go to Democrats.
During my 10 year service as a Macon County commissioner, I voted for every capital facilities improvement in Macon County Schools since 1997, investments of more than $50 million. For the first time in more than 35 years there will be no mobile classrooms at the start of the 2012-13 school year. That is a record I’m proud of and a testimony to the value Macon citizens place on their public schools. In spite of that record, the NCAE chose to spend thousands of dollars on mailers that contained misleading information and/or outright lies about my record. So, is the NCAE for education or is the NCAE for the Democrat Party? My personal experience makes me wonder.
I have met no person in the Legislature who is interested in an “orchestrated evisceration of the state’s public schools,” as was stated in the column. I have met many who are interested in improving public education so that students are better prepared to compete in a global economy. Our results are not adequate at this time and it will take more than money to improve them.
Your readers should be reminded that H200, the bipartisan budget passed for this biennium, cut K-12 education budget 0.5 percent more than the governor's recommended budget. Hardly the draconian cuts described by some. That does not include the $60 to $100 million the governor wanted to pass on to local governments for school bus purchases. Ask your county commissioners what they thought of that idea. The legislature worked diligently to craft a budget so that our state was fiscally sound. We have begun that journey but there is still much work to do.
The present legislature inherited a $2.5 billion deficit, a $2.6 billion debt to the federal government for unemployment compensation, $7 billion in tax supported debt, a $2.8 billion underfunded state employee retirement system, a $40 million underfunded consolidated judicial retirement system, a $40 million underfunded National Guard retirement system, and a $32.8 billion unfunded liability for retiree health insurance benefits. The legislature would prefer to dedicate more to education programs that work and reward good teachers with merit pay, but those efforts will not reach full fruition until we have our fiscal house in order.
We do agree that teachers should not be held accountable for society’s ills. We cannot continue to dump our problems at the schoolhouse door and expect our teachers, our educational system, to make it all better. To use Mr. McLeod’s own words, “Student achievement still has ground to make up with counterparts around the nation. Many counties have put together quality programs that send students on to college prepared for what lies ahead, but others are lacking.”
We need to invest in finding out what works and need to stop doing what clearly does not. As we move forward to provide our students with the very best we can offer, we must infuse integrity into our stewardship of funds for education so that those same students will not be shackled with state and nationally imposed debt they will not live long enough to repay. That, sir, is a burden they do not deserve and one against which I will continue to hold my guard.
Sometimes what we expect to happen doesn’t:
On vacation this week, I stopped in Raleigh and viewed the “Rembrandt in America” exhibit currently showing at the N.C. Museum of Art. I enjoyed the exhibit very much indeed. But what honestly carried far greater emotional impact for me was a secondary exhibit by North Carolina artist Beverly McIver.
McIver is an African-American woman born in Greensboro; she lives now in Durham. McIver’s work to date has focused on her mother, Ethel, who died in 2004. And on Beverly McIver’s mentally disabled sister, Renee, who is in her 50s but has the “mental mindset” of a second-grader.
McIver’s paintings are bold. They are raw and honest. Her rendering of her mother in “Mom Died” literally and unexpectedly brought me to tears. Her mother’s mouth is open, a hole in a white, unfilled-in face. Ethel is lying flat in her hospital bed; the perspective is incredibly pain-filled and heartfelt, unmistakably real.
I have cried listening to certain music performances. I have cried while reading particular books. Never have I been forced to leave an art exhibit because of overwhelming emotion and tears. This was a new, welcome if painful, experience, and Beverly McIver’s powerful paintings are an exciting addition to my life. I look forward to seeing what she will produce in the coming years, and have every intention of tracking her work in various galleries. What a tremendous gift this woman has, and the labor she has clearly invested into mastering her craft is sobering but inspiring.
McIver’s work hangs at the state museum through June 24. Rembrandt’s, by the way, can be viewed through Jan. 22.
Learning dreams really can come true:
I stayed as a guest in a 15-year-old community in Carrboro, Arcadia Co-housing, which residents tout as “a progressive, intentional community governed by consensus.” Amazingly enough, that proud claim rings true — there are 33 families here, each living in their own individual houses. Residents work together to create an interconnected community. Arcadia consists of 16.5 acres of land, but development is limited to five of those acres. The remainder is kept in woods, a field, a pond, a community garden and meadows.
All households are represented on Arcadia’s board of directors. Business meetings are held monthly, there are work signup parties quarterly, steering committee meetings are scheduled monthly, and other meetings (stonings? banishments? The group’s website doesn’t specify) are held “as needed.”
I stayed in a room located in Arcadia’s common house. The group built this common facility, in part, to provide housing for guests. This keeps residents’ houses smaller and absent of guest rooms that would only experience occasional use. There’s a laundry in the common house so that residents don’t have these appliances in their homes, a multipurpose sitting area, rooms geared toward kid activities, extra storage room and a large kitchen with a dining area. Monthly community meals are scheduled, with volunteers doing the cooking.
I’m a raging liberal by almost any definition you choose. But I admit to harboring a certain skepticism when it comes to intentional housing. I would never have believed it could work, much less for 15 years, and furthermore seem really cool and fun.
My friend Kevin Corbin, who is as far to the right as I am to the left, happened to call while I was visiting in Arcadia. He wanted to chat about a particular article I’d written about the commission board in Macon County, which he chairs. Kevin’s son attends UNC-Chapel Hill’s dental school, an odd choice for the scion of such a proud GOP-oriented family. Kevin assures me that UNC’s dental school is different from regular UNC. It is suitably conservative, he said, even for a Corbin.
Kevin laughed when I told him I was in Carrboro. “You know that even the people who live in Chapel Hill think Carrboro is too liberal. Don’t you?” he asked me, clearly amused but also not speaking in jest.
Maybe indeed Arcadia could exist only in a bastion of liberals, but it’s neat indeed that it does work, regardless of where. We could use more Arcadias in our world.
And, finally, the loveliness of our state:
When it comes time for my occasional trips to the beach, I’ve consistently chosen South Carolina because of its relative nearness to Western North Carolina. This vacation, however, I struck out on Interstate 40 and then to the Outer Banks. What a delight this place has proven.
The ocean here is strikingly rough, churning and chopping in unceasing, un-rhythmic, mesmerizing motion. The shells deposited on beaches bear the branding of this unforgiving ocean — they are rarely whole, usually just bits and pieces. There’s a natural beauty to this region that seems unique from other coastal areas I’ve visited. There’s something about being surrounded by so much water that is stunning, and even a bit overwhelming and frightening.
Damage from last year’s hurricane is clearly visible. Driving north down the coast, you come to a heavily hit, abandoned-appearing vacation or second-home community. Porches of houses were sheared, hanging desolate and broken in the sky; house pilings exposed, in places collapsed. Water was everywhere, in areas where water was not wanted or welcome. The place was a disaster.
The sign on the development was unintentionally prescient of what occurred: “Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream,” it read cheerily, a slogan written to entice potential buyers pre-Hurricane Irene.
It seems to me that building in the Outer Banks is a crapshoot. More hurricanes will come; continued erosion is a given, not a guess. Sort of like building in defiance of a mountain’s grain; at least, that’s what this visitor from WNC couldn’t help but think.
When the state House voted to override Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto and stop letting teachers use payroll deductions to pay dues to the N.C. Association of Educators, a cry went up across the state. The vote came late in the night when the legislature was supposed to be considering another measure; the vote was retribution against the teachers group from Republicans who control the General Assembly because its political contributions went overwhelmingly to Democrats; and it was a further erosion of workers’ rights, a move by the GOP nationwide to weaken workers associations and unions.
All of the above are true. It would be hard to argue otherwise.
By my estimation, though, what’s particularly troubling about this move orchestrated by the General Assembly Republican leadership is that it is potentially just a first step toward what could be an orchestrated evisceration of the state’s public schools. I’m a product of North Carolina public schools, a system that as a whole has never been considered great. Only in the last decade have we increased teacher salaries to a respectable level. Student achievement still has ground to make up with counterparts around the nation. Many counties have put together quality programs that send students on to college prepared for what lies ahead, but others are lacking.
So why take a direct punch at the N.C. Association of Educators? To me that’s like taking a shot at working class people, a charge that the GOP is already having to fight off.
I should point out that my wife is a teacher. Though not active in the NCAE, she was as perturbed as one might expect when I shared the news stories about the vote in the General Assembly. It has to be hard for those who slog away daily in classrooms to think much of legislators who make a career of criticizing public schools and turning teachers into scapegoats for many of society’s ills.
In this case, many conservatives who voted for this measure are arguing that the NCAE isn’t really supportive of better schools, that its leaders are merely about padding their own pockets. That line — that worker groups are more about padding the pockets of its leaders than supporting its front-line workers — is almost always a ludicrous charge.
You know, GOP leaders in the General Assembly are right. Teachers have traditionally supported Democrats. The reason is pretty straightforward: Democrats in North Carolina have led the way as teacher salaries have gone up to a respectable level, as classroom sizes have become manageable, as teacher assistants have become mandatory in the younger grades, as resources have gone toward other early remediation measures designed to get students early intervention to shore up basic skills. When you work to improve the lives and the working environment for a particular group of workers, you earn their loyalty.
By over-riding the governor’s veto, the GOP has only reinforced the belief among teachers that their party doesn’t support our public school system. In this state, the NCAE does not have union-type power. It can’t engage in collective bargaining to demand better conditions for teachers. It can and does hire lobbyists to argue for particular issues.
We have been through a worst-in-a-generation recession, and only now is there a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. In this environment, cuts to state programs and to education are painfully necessary. Teachers don’t like the cuts, and they complained about them and used NCAE money to support candidates who vowed to protect public schools.
It’s one thing for elected leaders to get mad about a lack of support from teachers. It’s an entirely different matter for lawmakers to make a political point by punishing an organization for promoting public education. This one was a mistake.
Cutting collards this past weekend, I was surprised to find colonies of purplish-colored aphids under many of the leaves.
That discovery spurred me into a more extensive garden inventory. I discovered several of the more tender greens, such as the Asian introductions Tokyo Bekana and Vitamin Green, bore evidence of feeding insects. There were shotgun patterns of holes marring these tasty plants’ leaves.
When later I jerked a length of row cover from a shelf in the garden storage shed, the abrupt movement disturbed a small village of Asian beetles. The honeybees, too, were actively in search of something to feed upon. But because they fly from the hive at temperatures roughly 50 degrees or warmer, this wasn’t as profound a marker of the unseasonable-ness of our recent weather as other insect types.
This is the first time I can remember such vigorous insect activity this late (or should that be early) in the year. I’m certain we’ve had similar warm, early winter weather in past years; until I became a gardener there was little reason to note such events in my memory bank. Which is an excellent reason, among many excellent reasons, to garden. One immediately becomes an acute, if amateur, observer of nature; and a historian of sorts regarding previous garden seasons and anomalies accompanying them.
The surge of insect activity hadn’t been isolated to the garden. I’d noticed, but not attended to the why, our hens were ranging farther and farther from where their laying pellets are kept. The insect populations clearly must have rebounded elsewhere, too. The hens this past week could be viewed happily tossing the leaf litter on the forest floor like so many industrious chicken leafblowers. They must have been uncovering and devouring newly emerging or reemerging bugs and worms.
The weather forecasters, however, warned of an impending deep freeze while I snacked in front of the local news broadcast hours after devouring a requisite helping of hoppin’ john. The winds indeed were gusting by nightfall of the new year’s first day. A burst of Arctic air, as the television weather woman ominously and breathlessly termed the incoming assault, accompanied most likely by accumulating snow. That sounded brutal, but such cold certainly would prove much more painful for the insects than me, given my ability to hole up, sheltered, by a warm fire. An “Arctic blast” would end not only their unseasonable romps through the garden, but indeed through life.
A New Year’s Day visitor noticed the honeybees flying from the hives perched on the hill above the house and asked how well they winter. Perfectly, I responded, unless they get wet, diseased or starve to death.
Honeybees in cold weather form a cluster, a huddle, to protect themselves and most importantly, to shelter the brood and queen. Honeybees during cold spells will disconnect their wing muscles from their wings. This allows them to more easily vibrate and, in this manner, generate lifesaving and life-giving warmth. The temperature inside of the cluster containing the precious queen and brood has been measured at a consistent, and balmy, 92 degrees.
The outermost honeybees periodically move into the center of the huddle to stay warm, leaving other honeybees for a time to endure the cold’s brunt on the cluster’s parameter. There is a constant in and out flow to a winter cluster, a cycle as perpetual as the movement of waves on an ocean, ever coming and going. I find this enjoyable to ponder when having an insomniac moment on a cold night.
I have sugar water prepared to go on the hives into hive-top feeders. This should have been fed to the honeybees already, but an attack of a plague-like illness sent me to bed, to weakened even to care for the bees. I had hoped to send them into this cold weather as prepared as possible. Fat and sassy, scoffing even at the promised Arctic blast and accumulating snowfall.
There’s little doubt that honeybees will be starving this winter across Western North Carolina if beekeepers neglect feeding them. The warm weather means they’ve likely been eating their stores at a torrid pace.
Starvation, even in colder winters than this one, is the most common method of death for honeybee colonies.
The beekeeper can know she’s starved her charges quite easily — you raise the cover and inner lid of a hive to discover the honeybees’ butts in the air, dead facedown into the comb cells. They starved there while searching in vain for something to eat. This is a sad, discouraging sight indeed for any beekeeper, maybe the worst one I know when it comes to honeybees. Because it’s so clearly the result of preventable neglect; akin to the act of leaving a dog in a car with rolled up windows on a hot summer day. Or tethering a goat unwatched to feed on weeds, like so much bait on a fishing line for marauding neighborhood dogs.
By Kate Queen • Guest Columnist
At the beginning of December, Mountain Medical Associates, an established, multi-specialty internal medicine practice in Clyde, joined the MedWest Physician Network. Our new affiliation with MedWest is a continuation of Mountain Medical Associates’ longstanding commitment to provide high-quality healthcare in this community.
Mountain Medical Associates grew out of a practice founded in 1964 by Dr. Ralph Feichter, a Haywood County native whose medical training included work at the Mayo Clinic. That experience inspired him to develop a clinic here where physicians could collaborate to meet the needs of patients with complex medical problems, a model we believe has enhanced care as well as physician satisfaction.
Over the past nearly 50 years, Mountain Medical Associates has supported community healthcare initiatives throughout Haywood County. Dr. Feichter led the effort to relocate the hospital to its current central location in Clyde. The members of Mountain Medical Associates also played key roles in the development of the hospital Health and Fitness Center and the Osteoporosis Center, and continue to strive to build innovative programs on the hospital campus.
Mountain Medical Associates has 12 providers who specialize in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, gastroenterology, rheumatology and neurology. The current environment for recruiting new physicians with the level of knowledge and training we believe our patients deserve is challenging. Most recently trained physicians want the benefits of a formal affiliation with a health care system.
Becoming part of the MedWest Physician Network will help to attract high-quality health practitioners to serve this region and secure the presence of a multispecialty practice like ours in this community.
One of the other benefits to becoming part of the MedWest Physician Network will be the opportunity to use a unified electronic medical record system which will enhance our ability to offer seamless care and avoid the fragmented transfer of information and at times unnecessary duplication of testing that unfortunately has been part of usual care in this country
We want to assure our patients that our commitment to them will not change and that we will all continue to provide care in our current long-term location. We are welcoming patients seeking internal medicine providers and will continue to embrace our commitment to securing excellent health care for all of Haywood County.
(Dr. Kate T. Queen, M.D. has practiced rheumatology at Mountain Medical Associates for 25 years. She received her M.D. from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where she also did her residency in the Department of Medicine. Call 828.452.0331 or visit www.mountainmedicalassociates.com for more about the practice.)
I’ve put my keyboard-soft finger on what is probably the most common flaw of the human species: the unnerving tendency to quit doing what we know is good for us. Or, put another way, to make destructive or unwise choices.
As I contemplate the new year and my family, as I watch my children mature and begin to make decisions that will affect their entire adult lives, I couldn’t help pondering my own adolescence and early adulthood. I made some very, ummm, questionable choices. They should have cost me more than they did. I was lucky.
You’ve probably already figured out that I haven’t discovered anything new here. I remember first studying the ancient philosophers as an undergraduate. A playful professor pointed out Aristotle’s views on what the Greeks called “akrasia.” Excuse the layman’s definition, but it’s basically a theory that expounded on a human’s tendency to do what we know isn’t good for us. This particular professor used Aristotle’s point to poke a little fun at incessant partying, lack of sleep, students coming to class not having read assignments, and other aspects of college life that did not contribute positively to the future we all supposedly were preparing for.
Akrasia. The word works. Smokers know smoking is bad, yet they persist. Watching seven hours of TV a day, not good. Drinking too much alcohol, same thing. Breaking a promise, lying, wasting time, you name it. Every religion addresses this weakness, this impefection in the human condition.
All this self-absorbed introspection as 2012 dawned led to one very simple pledge, and that’s simply to start writing regularly in the pages of The Smoky Mountain News.
When we started this newspaper in June 1999, we did it on a shoestring. We had one salesperson, one designer, and one writer. I was the writer, so I wrote. In those days that was a whole bunch of news stories every week plus columns and editorials. It took a tremendous amount of energy, and I loved it.
Over the years, other responsibilities have steered me away from putting fingers to keyboard and collecting my thoughts in essays and columns. Family commitments, a larger business, and community endeavors all conspired to take valuable time. But like so many entrepreneurs who get sidetracked as their business grows, I still find the greatest satisfaction in the labor of love that led me here in the first place.
I said earlier that I was lucky in that some unwise decisions didn’t hurt me too much. In the same way, I was relatively lucky in choosing a career path from an early age. From the time I took my first journalism class as a high school freshman, I pretty much knew where it was going to lead. I worked at The Fayetteville Observer-Times as a high school student, reporting on regional high school sporting events as teletype machines spewing out AP and UPI news reports from around the country provided a constant background beat.
Once in college, I wrote for the college paper and was further encouraged by a few university professors who complimented my writing skills and stoked a desire to stick with the profession. After a satisfying few years as a carpenter and a bit of traveling, I found myself back in journalism. Five newspapers stints later, we started The Smoky Mountain News.
Which brings me to the here and now. One of my co-workers recently sat in my office and talked about her need to write more, to finally get to work on that novel. That happened a day after I had told my wife about my desire to get back to writing. That’s good timing, and perhaps another little nugget of luck.
It happens to writers much better than me. I know this, because I need only to open a book and find a sentence like this one to be instantly reassured: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”
That brilliant start is by James Thurber in The Thurber Carnival at the beginning of his essay, “What do you mean it was Brillig?”
Let us break down that sentence by the master, shall we?
Thurber, like me, was clearly stuck. He was as stuck as any writer can be. “I am sitting” is writer’s code that he’d been at his desk for hours, perhaps days and weeks, waiting for inspiration. “Inspiration” is the oft-spoken-about muse fiction writers apparently visit on whim. Nonfiction writers like myself and — if I dare even write his name in such close proximity to my own presence — Thurber, tend to find their muses on deadline. And what a wicked witch she is, the old bag.
Thurber confirms he’d been moldering at his desk for some time with his very next words: “one afternoon several weeks ago.” See? He’d been there several weeks, poor man, unable to find a topic. Think about the wedding scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations and you’ll have a nice mental picture of a columnists’ or essayists’ life when writer’s block strikes: A tortured Miss Havisham, as seen by Pip, dressed in her tattered, yellowing wedding dress and hovering near the cobweb-festooned bride cake feasted on by mice. That’s what the world of Thurber on that day looked like, waiting like Miss Havisham for something that never comes. And my writer’s torture chamber looks like that, too. The greatest or the least of us, it matters not, we suffer the same.
I know the feeling well that Thurber described in his simple sentence of being chained to the writer’s desk (I repeat it here, in case you’ve forgotten his golden words: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”)
I myself sat Sunday for at least 10 minutes staring at a blank computer screen trying to hit on something to write about before I noticed how lovely a day it was for mid December. You remember the sun shone so bright and warmly. So I went about my merry way with the mental justification, “I’ll just get up a bit early in the morning and write.”
Now, of course, it’s early in the morning and I still don’t have a topic, and I’m doing something that I swore on the sacred writer’s Bible I’d never do: I’m writing my column about not having a topic for my column.
Some of the very worst writing abuses ever found in newspapers — and that’s saying a lot given the writing abuses that are found in newspapers — have been wrought by columnists bereft of reasons to write. Columnists who have no topic of interest yet insist nevertheless on being columnists regardless of their total absence of anything meaningful to write upon.
Why, I have railed many a time against these sham writers, usually with a bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other hand because, my dears, one needs props when railing, though I’ve noticed that since I’ve become so amazingly humble and bourbon- and cigarette-less I tend not to rail at all … funny how it works like that.
Thurber concludes our shining example by noting that he was “staring at a piece of blank white paper.” I’m here to note there is nothing more stimulating about staring at a blank white Microsoft word document than a blank sheet of actual paper. The key words in that sentence are the double repetition of “blank.” Nothing else matters — blank is blank, believe you me, whether it is on a computer screen or at a typewriter.
An aside: Unlike many here in this kiddy romper room that poses as The Smoky Mountain News — I jest not, the newspaper’s owners raid the state’s juvenile detention center for wayward 11- and 12-year-olds when in need of staff, they come cheaper by the dozen that way — I’m old enough to have stared mindlessly at real paper. Real, crinkly paper, children; the stuff you can hold in your hands.
Despite the uncanny similarity of us both being writers, you will be surprised to know there are a few distinct differences between Thurber and myself. First of all, he’s dead and I’m not; he was male and I’m female; we have different names; he was a Yankee and I’m a Southerner.
On Christmas Eve, my dad would always bring home a huge box of navel oranges and bags of pecans, walnuts, and almonds, all still in their shells. These would be arranged, though not artfully, on the fireplace mantel underneath our stockings.
We knew that these gifts did not come from Santa Claus — they came from Florida, where Dad had just been in his 18-wheeler. He was not what anyone would call a healthy eater, but he did love those navel oranges. He’d peel them with his fingers, and then tear off sections for us to share. I liked peeling back the thin layer of skin on my section and then pretending to be a dinosaur devouring hundreds of the exposed, tiny orange trees with one enormous bite. Christmas Eve.
We’d sit around the tree, poking at the presents — the ones from our parents or distant relatives — lifting them to gauge the heft, or giving them a gentle shake to see if anything moved inside, and how it moved, and what sounds issued if it did move. Since these were “parent” gifts, we knew that the contents would be something responsible, but dull, like tube socks or a flannel shirt, but since Santa would not be arriving for several more excruciating hours, and these presents DID bear our names and MIGHT be something at least a little more exciting than usual — maybe a Dallas Cowboys toboggan or a box of cashew turtles — we couldn’t help fussing over them obsessively while mean old Ben Weaver kept trying to get himself arrested in the Christmas episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” which we watched every year on Christmas Eve.
Ben Weaver. The Grinch. Ebenezer Scrooge. If Christmas possessed the magic to turn those hardened hearts, it was no less magical to us because it also had the power to bring our dad home to spend the evening with us, which was a rare and wondrous thing. He spent most of his time out on the truck, driving all over the country, and when he was home, he managed to find, orchestrate, or simply will a card game into existence, such was his love of gambling, or more precisely, his love of playing cards. Gambling was just his way of making the games more meaningful.
In any case, I didn’t begrudge it. I have always enjoyed, even admired, being around people who are in their element, doing what they love, and my dad was in his element playing cards. When we got a little older — old enough to drive — we knew we could find him at the golf course or the pool room or Southside Restaurant or Grady’s General Store playing gin for 10 or 20 or 50 dollars a hand, depending upon the daring, foolishness, and/or relative wealth of his opponent at any given time. He almost never lost, and when he did, he would usually win the next four or five hands in a row. He understood the game from the inside, somehow. If “Good Will Hunting” had been about cards, my dad would have been played by Matt Damon.
We’d find him, and then watch him play for 20 or 30 minutes. It was like watching a detective sweat out a confession, as he toyed with his opponent, joking one minute, grimacing the next, arching an eyebrow, the meaning of which was impossible to decode. The other guy would try to read something in his face — a huge mistake, a fatal mistake, as he transformed suddenly from a detective to a vampire, glamouring the poor fool into playing out another losing hand, and then handing us the proceeds to pay for gas, arcade games, fast food, or whatever escapades might await us on a Friday night in Sparta.
How many of our weekends, automobiles, or college classes were funded over the years from gambling is impossible to say, but suffice to say it was a lot. My sister once got a bedroom suite because a guy couldn’t pay. I once got my house painted.
Last week, my wife bought home a huge bag of navel oranges on the eleventh anniversary of my father’s death. It was just a coincidence, but this convergence brought him back with a force I haven’t felt for awhile, though he is, as he always has been, dead or alive, at the edge of my thoughts and dreams, barely out of reach, but still always there somehow, happy and in his element.
If you are lucky enough to have your dad at home on Christmas Eve, give him a big hug and savor him. If you are a dad, get home as much as you can all through the year. Find your kids in their element, and savor them. They’re growing up quick — you can bet on that.
Merry Christmas, Dad. I hope the navel oranges in heaven are as good as the ones from Florida.