Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit... a microblog

Sometimes life intrudes … no post this week. Instead, I’m helping two friends move …

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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Pops baseball USEThe photo at the right show a cartoon someone did of my father, Jay Hege, back in the late fifties when he was head of the Community Chest in my hometown, Greensboro, North Carolina. Along with my  Washington Nationals baseball hat. Because to me,  Pops and baseball are inseparable

I think he really was as hard-driving in business as he looks in that cartoon. If there was something to be done, Pops wanted to organize people and get on with it. He was not, I think, a particularly patient man, and he was downright impatient with lollygaggers. Including his younger daughter when, for example, I didn’t keep up when the family went hiking. One of my earliest memories is of my mother saying to my father, “Jay, be patient with her, she’s only four.”

Pops, however, is also the reason I have never seen my professional life as in any way constrained by being a woman. And this is where baseball comes in.

My father was the only son of five children, his only children were girls. So, as he really loved baseball, I ended being his baseball buddy. Pops taught me to pitch — really pitch, not just lob the ball at the batter — while playing catch in our backyard. And he also taught me the nuances of the games we watched together on Saturday afternoons.

For a while as a kid,  my ambition was to be the first woman player in the Major Leagues. Pops never scoffed at this. He was the rare father of girls in those days who would look a daughter in the eye and tell her she could be anything she really wanted to be. If I was willing to work hard and not rely on some man to do life’s heavy lifting, Pops would say, there was no place I didn’t belong.

A woman’s place, he said, is everywhere.

Charlie and I watch the Washington Nationals a lot. The game of baseball, I find, has changed. Beane Ball — the application of sabermetric principles — has made “small ball” much more important. The Nats are fortunate to have the announcing team of Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo who are much more  interested in the science of baseball than in talking about themselves. And thanks to Pops, I understand the nuances of this new, modern game they’re talking about

NASCAR Story

Reporting on NASCAR … I think for Marketplace

I never played baseball in the major leagues, but I was an early woman sports reporter. How well, I remember  my first days in press boxes; the surprised look on men’s faces. What is she doing here? 

Thanks to Pops (who also taught me a lot about football and basketball), I, however, knew I belonged there. And since I also knew the game, pretty soon, so did the guys.

 

 

 

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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I came face-to-face with my own past twice last week. Or, to be more literal, I came face-to-face with it the first time, and face-to-ear with it the second.

me as yelenaFittingly enough, Facebook was responsible for the face-to-face confrontation. There I was in a friend’s post, forty-three years younger and with a different last name, all dressed up to play Yelena in Checkov’s Uncle Vanya at UVA’s old Minor Hall theater. (As an aside, I loved that fey old theater. If you made a stage right exit and needed to re-enter stage left, you went out a door, ran around the building, and then climbed in a window.)

It’s funny, but my immediate reaction to seeing this photo was to remember how seriously I took myself in those days. And how much hard work that entailed. And looking at this picture of 25-year-old me, it came to me how happy I am that today I prefer to work hard at other things. Like public radio and writing and being a good friend and maintaining my ancient cat’s health and enjoying my husband’s company and following the Washington Nationals.

Now I’m not saying it’s a complete waste of time to take yourself seriously when you’re young. I mean, we all do it, so it must have some value. But I do know it would be sad if I were my current age and still doing it. At my age, it’s time to realize that no matter what I’ve done — really, no matter what most of us have done — it’s just not going to be that memorable.

Which brings me to last week’s face-to-ear moment…

It  took place in James Madison University’s fitness center (or UREC as we aficionados refer to it).

I’ve been a regular at this glorious facility for years. My one complaint is the music which is usually urban thump-thump or techno dance stuff, played unpleasantly loud. But then, last week, just as I’m sitting down to do some serious leg pumps, lo-and-behold, The Grateful Dead launch into “A Touch of Grey.” And suddenly I was dancing in my heart. And I was completely sure that everyone else in the fitness center was dancing in their hearts as well, because — well — it’s The Dead, a major part of my generation’s soundtrack.

Jerry Garcia (from A Touch of Grey video)

Jerry Garcia (from A Touch of Grey video)

Just then, a student employee wandered by. I felt great love for him, for his youth, for his musical discernment.

“Did you play The Grateful Dead just for me?” I asked.

The young man looked at me blankly. “Who?”

Sic transit gloria mundi…as my mama used to intone. At the time I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

 

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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My father, whom I think was much loved, used to come home from his civic organization meetings muttering , “Life would be so easy if you just didn’t have to deal with people!”

He was right of course, but life without people would also be, in my opinion, absolutely no fun.

The trick, of course, is not to let the people who annoy you take up residence in your  head. And today I will pass on my foolproof way to defend against such invasions.

It came to me while taking my final grammar exam in seventh grade. My English teacher at Kiser Junior High School was the ever-unorthodox Mrs. Hazelman. She, in true Mrs. Hazelman-fashion, asked us to diagram this short nonsense rhyme by Gelette Burgess, shown below as it originally appeared in the first issue of Mr. Burgess’s magazine, The Lark, in May 1895.

1280px-Burgess-cow


Not only did Mr. Burgess’s ditty provide me with a cracking good grammatical challenge, it provided me with a healthy way to fend off bad moods caused by interactions with annoying people. Ever since that day in seventh grade, whenever I have to deal with someone whose behavior seems expressly designed to irritate me, I say to myself, “Purple cow. Purple cow. I’d rather see than be one.”

So far, it’s worked almost ever time….

p.s. we also have Mr. Burgess to thank for inventing the word “blurb.”

 

 

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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pence springs hotel 1983I’ve been thinking recently about a night I spent at an inn in Pence Springs, West Virginia. This is the part of West Virginia that’s certainly wild and wonderful, but is very hard to make a living in now that the coal mines are played out. My hotel had once been used as a penitentiary, a place to lock women up who’d failed to toe the legal line. But so what if my tiny room had once housed misery and desperation? So what if its door was steel? So what if there was talk in the lobby of rattling chains and screams at night? After a day spent rafting the New River in a cold rain, I was thrilled to be warm and dry.

I woke up the next day to find the air scrubbed clean and bright by rain, the woods late-summer lush and hopping with birds. I’m a reporter, I’m nosy, I can’t be anywhere without exploring. After breakfast, I prowled around a derelict water-bottling plant and what looked like an old still. Then I came upon the Pence Springs Community Church—white-washed board-and-batten sides, tin roof, plastic-film pictures of Jesus stuck on its windows, a place for folks folks to gather who didn’t have much other than God going for them. I remember thinking that here was a true spiritual safe haven. Even I might enter its doors and, for an hour or two, experience peace.

black walnutsInside, I found an old man vacuuming the sanctuary’s bright-blue carpet. In small-town West Virginia, once you’re there, you belong.  Plus, it’s a universal truth that talking with anyone beats vacuuming. I waved and shouted, waved and shouted, until he finally noticed me, shut off the vacuum, and, sure enough, immediately launched into some earlier, discontinued conversation. “Yes ma’am,” he said, walking toward me down the bright blue aisle, “them black walnuts is ripening now, for sure. They’re the ones stains your hands so bad. My mother and the other wives ‘round here used to boil their shells down, mix in some homemade whiskey, and use it to dye their hair. All winter, those women’d have the same color hair, but come spring, the dye’d run out, and, by summertime, they’d all be pretty near gray headed!”

That was the start of our morning together. My new friend talked and talked and talked—words not coming out of his mouth only when tobacco spit did.  He told innumerable, interchangeable stories of lives lived to the rhythm of the seasons—how fall hunting and trapping gave way to long, cold winters of waiting. How spring plowing and planting and weeding and hoeing produced brief golden times of late summer plenty.

pence spring signWhen I finally had to leave, the old man was in the middle of a complicated story about a woman prisoner, how she’d been convicted of a triple murder and shut up in my hotel (back when it was still a penitentiary), how one day she’d escaped and simply disappeared.  “Guess she had to get away,” he said, shoving his bill cap back on his head with a practice swipe of his hand, “and so she just lit out. She may be dead, she may not be. She just ain’t here.”

I remember walking back down the steep rutted driveway, past the church graveyard with its fenced-in Pence family plot. There were mostly two graves for every headstone, “so-and-so Pence and wife.”  And wife. So that was it, as far as the women went in Pence Springs, West Virginia. They’d lived and died and hadn’t even left a name. And even so, presumably, they’d sat dutifully sat in the Pence Spring Community Church on Sunday morning and praised Jesus. How the hell had they put up with their lives? And why had they wanted to? Why hadn’t more of them murdered someone, just to make things different?

The women I’ve known well are all pretty independent and feel obligated to remain so, even in marriage. I still think about those Pence Springs women—the convicts who’d slept in my room before me at the penitentiary/hotel, and all those anonymous dead women with the same color hair.

I could understand the convicts. Except for the triple murderess, they’d stayed confined because they had no choice. But when I tried to imagine remaining in a life so astonishingly anonymous that you were known in death only as your husband’s wife, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reach beyond my own, narrow, liberated experience to understand such an existence. I couldn’t, in any way, not think that how those women had lived their lives was a waste. And these weren’t the women of another country, another culture. These women had lived only a mountain range away.

 

April 8 2014 moutains

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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I started lifting weights back when I worked  at Sweet Briar College. Nothing extreme, no body-sculpting, just lifting to get stronger –  in body, head and heart. I worked out in the college’s rather dank, basement fitness room that has since moved to a spiffy new facility. As it should, as Sweet Briar College obviously graduates strong women. So maybe, you know, I started lifting because I was internalizing the Sweet Briar karma…

A the moment, tiny Sweet Briar is arguably the most famous women’s college in the country. After suffering a long decline, a sort of slow-wasting away at the hands of a thousand consultants, Sweet Briar’s former Board Chairperson Paul G. Rice, B.S. pronounced the college officially dead in March. Former president James Jones agreed. But they  made the mistake of underestimating the strength of Sweet Briar graduates. Thousands of these women rose up and organized themselves  into an ad hoc association to save their college. Their goal was also their name: Saving Sweet Briar.

And hola! hola!,  if they haven’t pulled it off. Messrs Rice and Jones are both gone. Sweet Briar College has a new president, a new board, a new energy, and a year to reinvent its future.

Even though I’m mostly a writer now, I still proudly work part-time  at WMRA Public Radio. As I write this, I am just finishing editing a conversation I had with lawyer Philip Stone, Sweet Briar College’s new president. In it he celebrates the strong women with whom he will be working.

sweet briar women fight

One of the benefits of the turmoil that Sweet Briar as just been through is that the alumnae were so stirred up that they simply took charge of their college. And I wouldn’t have given them 2 cents for their chances of success when they started. Their energy, their commitment, their strength, their courage – I think represents such a model for women in leadership that one of the things we’ll be saying to new students is are you good enough to be part of this group. This is   the new Sweet Briar. These are real leaders.

Most people don’t know this, but while they were raising pledges of 21 million dollars in about a hundred days without any development office, without any staffing, without any directory information, while they were doing that they also divided their very expert group up into groups to say let’s work on strategic planning. Because if this college survives, we want to be ready to move.

uppity women uniteYears and years ago, during my freelancing days, my daughter gave me a bumper sticker that read Uppity Women Unite.

Indeed.

 

 

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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me and the very large array

Yes, that is I, tiny and inconsequential, gawking at one of the 27 antennae that make up an uber-gargantuan radio telescope known as the Very Large Array.

These antennae sit on a vast dry lake bed in central New Mexico, marching along  three, thirteen mile-long tracks to form a very large Y. It is a dauntingly enormous space; vast, quiet, mostly empty. And the space it takes up is less than an iota of an quark when compared to the vastness of its range.

The Very Large Array exists to collect radio waves. And then it’s up to scientists and their computers to figure out what those radio waves have to teach us.  Which is a lot. The truth is that in spite of all our holding forth about this and that,  what we’ve learned is obviously nothing compared to what we don’t know. Or, indeed, what we’ve even begun to be able to realize we don’t know.

My time at the Very Large Array brought me smack up against a humbling truth: We humans have only just gotten started pecking around the edges of infinite mystery. And to put this on  a more personal level: I would do well to stop having such firm opinions about that which I really know nothing about. Just because I say something with great conviction doesn’t mean I speak the truth.

Okay, then, Very Large Array, I get your message: Shut up. Stay tuned.

Hal-loooo, out there in the vast unknowns! So glad we’re in touch. Or at least, more in touch than we used to be..

 

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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Writing and Saltville Man and Sanity…

I’ve been working off and on as a reporter in public radio for over 30 years. It’s a perfect fit for me. I’m curious, I love words, I’m drawn to go anywhere I’ve never been and talk to whomever I meet along the way. My job as I see it, is to take you to those places. Introduce you to those people.

SaltvilleSign

One night, probably 25 years ago, I was having meatloaf and pie at a restaurant in Saltville, a tiny town in chronically depressed Southwest Virginia and I spotted a guy sitting alone at a table on the other side of the room. He appeared to be sketching. Drawing quickly in pencil. The image on the page more real to him than the room.

When you’re on the road by yourself, if you’re shy, you’re lonely. This man intrigued me, so I struck up a conversation.

He was maybe thirty-five, although weathered enough for fifty. He wore a buttoned-up plaid shirt that someone had ironed. He lived, he said, with his mother and aunt in his great-grandfather’s house in a no-name cluster of buildings twenty miles deeper into the mountains. He worked construction during the week, driving hours to work because there were no jobs close by. On Saturday nights, he drew people in restaurants, which his mother and aunt thought was odd. He, himself, thought it was a peculiar thing for a grown man to do, but he did it anyway because he said it made him feel like himself.

He asked if I thought he was crazy. “No,” I said, “I know what you mean.” Which may not have been the truth back then, but it is now.

I thought his drawings were good. Not great, but strong, somehow. They were he said, nothing compared to his sculptures.

I was a bit of a wild person back in those days. I wanted to see those sculptures. He volunteered to come back the next morning and show me the way to his house. I said, okay.

There’s no drama involved in this story, only personal courage. His, not mine.

The man lived in a place anyone would leave who could. Hardscrabble was writ plainly across the front of his house. Hard times were writ plainly on the faces of his mother and aunt.

We went into the backyard where he pulled the tarpaulins off his sculptures and broke my heart. They were magnificent and necessary and made of sand. He didn’t have money for stone. he said, so his work washed away when it rained hard. But still, he got to do them

I’ve found myself thinking about Saltville Man and his sand sculptures quite a lot over the years. He had to have been sculpting for a long time to have become as good at it as he was. And the only reason he had for doing them was that doing them made him feel more like his real self.

The older I get, the simpler view I take of both life and myself. As a result, I’ve begun to contemplate the possibility that I, like Saltville Man, started writing and kept writing for the same reason he did his art: because doing it makes me feel like my real self. Over the years, I’ve certainly offered up a bunch of other explanations  to both myself and others. But I’ve begun to think it simply took me a long, long time to understand things about myself that Saltville Man was pretty much born knowing.

I do wish there was some way I could let him know how often I think about him and his sculptures. But I never went back, never saw Saltville Man again, and have no idea where he is.

 

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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I grew up privileged and then forfeited those privileges to my own self-destructive behavior. Ten years after my second divorce and one year sober, dreaming of pleasant days and zooming way up to a net worth of zero, Charlie asked me to marry him and I said yes. I loved the guy, he wanted to get married, so damn the torpedoes.

pileatedCharlie had saved a little money, and we used it to buy land; 11.5 acres of woods, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of acres of logging forest; home to pileated woodpeckers, bears, snakes, foxes, wild turkeys and very few other people. To have something to live in, we bought an ancient repo trailer – its former owner long-gone. Nobody else bid on it, so the bank let us have it for $750. We had it hauled out to the land and moved into it with no water and no electricity.

Wow, was I ever set free from the tyranny of my own middle-class expectation of what life my life would be! Charlie and I had no running water and so no indoor plumbing. As for an outhouse, our land sat atop a rocky ridge; it would have taken a drilling machine to penetrate. Charlie – ever the resourceful one in practical matters – organized an efficient outdoor privy system that involved heading off out into the woods with the officially designated sanitation shovel. After dark we’d grab a flashlight, because – particularly on warm nights – the bears came out to play and the snakes were quick to tangle. (How did I get here, I remember wondering.)

amherst county lighter

One such warm night I heard Charlie yell from outside. It was not a panicked yell as much as a pay-attention-right-now yell. I put down the book I was reading by lantern light, stuck my head out the window, yelled back. “What?” I could see the flashlight bobbling around through the trees maybe fifty yards from the trailer.

“Bring the ax down here!” Charlie shouted. “I’ve got a copperhead.”

copperhead 2A copperhead! Possibly the most deadly of our fellow woodland inhabitants. Certainly the most aggressive.

“I’m on my way,” I called, grabbing another flashlight.

I ran outside and around to the end of the trailer under which we kept our garden tools. My flashlight needed new batteries; its light was dim. I rummaged around in its faint glow, grabbed what I thought was the ax – at least, it was a tool with a wooden handle – and headed off towards that bobbling light.

The officially designated sanitation shovel’s blade had been worn or chipped until it was both dull and convex. Charlie had pinned a copperhead underneath its curve.  And yes, it was a copperhead, not some harmless hog-nosed snake masquerading as something it’s not. If he hadn’t married me, Charlie might possibly have been stuck there forever.

He shone his flashlight on the tool I’d brought. “That’s the maul, not the ax,” he said in his patient voice.

I looked down. Sure enough, instead of a blade at the end of my wooden handle, there was a brick-like lump.

“You’ll have to hold the shovel,” Charlie yelled. “The maul’s heavier than the ax. I can’t swing it with one hand.”

I looked down at the thrashing snake. Was this what I’d signed up for when I married Charlie?

Evidently, yes.

“Come on!” he said with some urgency. “Grab the shovel so I can let go.”

I did as instructed. Charlie let go, stepped back, raised the maul, brought it down on the snake’s back. The snake was now a head and a tail with a mass of pulp in the middle. Its head, however, was still trying to bite.

“Pick up the shovel!” Charlie ordered. “It’s in my way.”

I look down at that writhing head.

Could a copperhead strike with only pulp for a spine?

I picked up the shovel.

Charlie swung the maul with both hands, brought it down with a mighty whap on the snake’s head.

That was that. Crisis over. My goodness, I thought. I never thought I’d pull something like this off!

The real takeaway for me from the Night of the Copperhead was in my professional life. Personally, my life is delightfully predictable; but professionally I can’t think of anything I’ve wanted to do for the last couple of decades that I didn’t try to pull off. I mean, why not? I am Martha, hear me roar!

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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A San Souci State of Mind

All right then. I get it.

The San Souci Motel is called the San Soo-chee, not the Sahn Soo-cee. People in Buckroe Beach, Virginia, do not go in for Frenchification. At least according to my husband’s family, who’ve been going there since the fifties.

The San Souci is the last remaining water-front motel at Buckroe Beach. It was built in 1958 and has stayed true to its raising décor-wise. It is what it is.

Buckroe Beach  066

Buckroe is not really the beach beach; it fronts the Chesapeake Bay rather than the ocean. It offers only the politest of waves, surf without smackdown. No matter. What I like about the whole San Souci experience is its unpretentiousness. This might be because I am (I hope) a San Souci kind of novelist, one who writes what she’s lived.

Buckroe Beach 045I’ve always been a restless professional soul; a restaurant owner first, then a TV talk show host, reporter, news anchor, editor, an intermittent essayist, NPR freelancer, public radio producer. But through it all, I wrote novels on the sly. I started my first while working as a freelance broadcast journalist. One afternoon, trolling blue highways for stories in my pickup, a sentence popped into my head. I pulled over and wrote it down, considered it.

It was, I realized, the first sentence of a novel.

Over the next month, I wrote thirty pages. At which point – not having time for more conventional approaches – I phoned up the respected New York agent of a good acquaintance of mine who’d just won the National Book Award, and asked the agent if he would take a look. He said he would, he did, and he told me to finish the thing.

Yikes!

I phoned him up again. “How do you finish a novel?” I asked. Yes, I was that clueless.

“You keep writing,” the respected agent said. I did. He liked what I wrote, sent it around. It didn’t sell.

No matter. Eventually, I moved on to another agent and began writing non-fiction. But I also kept writing novels, getting up early to have a couple of hours amidst what Ben Fountain calls the “emotional logic” of my fictional worlds, before the day’s real work began, before multi-tasking and money worries eroded my focus, before other people’s needs began pecking at me like so many hungry ducks. I love the unconditional specificity of language and discovery demanded by writing fiction: Who are these people, and what, exactly, are they up to?

A couple of years ago, just for the hell of it, I reread my last finished novel, and felt this weird, fierce loyalty to its characters. Durn! I thought. These people deserve better than life in a cardboard box in my home office closet. I was in my early sixties then, an appropriate time to make a bucket list. As I’d already done a lot of different things, my bucket list was one item long: Publish Small Blessings!

As a one-time semi-regular NPR freelancer on books and publishing, I had good contacts. Not being shy, I fired off an e-mail directly to an editor that included ten pages of Small Blessings. Amazingly, this editor sent my e-mail on to another editor, who read those ten pages, asked for the rest (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus), then e-mailed me that it wasn’t for her but it was great and ready to go out.

“My agent hates my fiction,” I e-mailed back.

“Get a new agent,” was her response. She sent me a list of possibilities.

My new agent held an auction, and St. Martin’s snapped up Small Blessings.

This all happened a three years ago, just before a stay at the San Souci. Our last day there, I remember waking up to a blow. Fierce dark clouds were everywhere. There was a tornado warning. The no-swimming flag went up. The rain slammed down.

The storm passed by midday. My husband, Charlie, and I walked the beach. The no-swimming flag was still up, but a lone parasailor was out on the water. I watched him and felt what he felt, the wind pulling him forward, the abandoned woops of wave jumps. I was old enough to know he’d had that woops in him long before he’d even heard of parasailing. We can only do that which we already are, right?

I understood then and there that, while publishing Small Blessings was lovely and it might change how the world saw me, it would not change who I am. I’d been a novelist since I wrote that first sentence on the side of the road all those years ago.

Buckroe Beach  028

Small Blessings came out last August – publishing a novel, it seems, takes as long as gestating an elephant.  I plan celebrate its first birthday by spending a few quiet days at the San Souci with Charlie. And possibly, by trying parasailing. If that is, if I have it in me. Which I really, truly believe I do.

(all photos by Charlie Woodroof)

5/5/16

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4

 

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