Friday, January 29, 2010

About Art, Independence and Spirit . . .

I've never written (or reported) about a book I haven't finished reading yet, but then, as blogs are very much about life in progress, I figure it's perfectly okay to blog about one.

The partially-read book I want to blog about is Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. I started reading it because a friend lent it to me and I am looking for a book that might serve as a companion to a writing course I'm to teach in the spring for JMU's Lifelong Learning Institute.

Brenda Ueland was a journalist and writer who died in 1965 at the age of 93. She was a free spirit, even when measured against my own rather free-spirited sensibilities. Ms. Ueland married three times, had many lovers, walked miles daily, did a mean hand-stand, and wrote.

For me, reading If You Want to Write . . . is like what? A psychological shot of B-12? Permission to shake off the last of my self-imposed creative rules (i.e. shackles)? Giving myself permission to just go ahead and write whatever I want to write? Or maybe, even more importantly, giving myself permission to just go ahead and live?

Brenda Ueland is a wonderfully engaging essayist, her thoughts heavily influenced by William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh, though she certainly seems to be having a better time than either of those gentleman.

At the end of If You Want . . . is her famous (in a very limited way) list of twelve things to remember while you are writing (or painting, or living). I found them because of my habit of always reading the last few pages of a book before I legitimately get to them.

I thought it might energize both your spirit and your day if I passed them along.
  • Know that you have talent, are original and have something important to say.
  • Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.
  • Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts.
  • Tackle anything you want to -- novels, plays, anything. Only remember Blake's admonition: "Better to strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse un-acted desires."
  • Don't be afraid of writing bad stories. To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.
  • Don't fret or be ashamed of what you have written in the past.. . . We are too ready (women especially) not to stand by what we have said or done. Often, it is a way of forestalling criticism, saying hurriedly: "I know it is awful!" before anyone else does. Very bad and cowardly. It is so conceited and timid to be ashamed of one's mistakes. Of course they are mistakes. Go on to the next.
  • Try to discover your true, honest, un-theoretical self.
  • Don't think of yourself as an intestinal tract and tangle of nerves in the skull, that will not work unless you drink coffee. Think of yourself as incandescent power, illuminated perhaps and forever talked to by God, and his messengers. Remember how wonderful you are, what a miracle! . . .
  • If you are never satisfied with what you write, that is a good sign. It means your vision can see so far that it is hard to come up to it. Again I say, the only unfortunate people are the glib ones, immediately satisfied with their work. To them the ocean is only knee deep.
  • When discouraged, remember what Van Gogh said: "If you hear a voice within you saying: You are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.
  • Don't be afraid of yourself when you write. Don't check-rein yourself. If you are afraid of being sentimental, say, for heaven's sake be as sentimental as you can or feel like being! Then you will probably pass through to the other side and slough off sentimentality because you understand it at last and really don't care about it.
  • Don't always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. "I will not Reason & Compare," said Blake: "my business is to Create." Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Let's talk. . .

If anything can stimulate a spirited reader discussion on the WMRA blog, it seems to me has to be  last night's speeches.

Melina Mara/Washington Post

President Obama began his State of the Union address last night with these two paragraphs:
Our Constitution declares that from time to time, the president shall give to Congress information about the state of our union. For 220 years, our leaders have fulfilled this duty. They've done so during periods of prosperity and tranquility. And they've done so in the midst of war and depression, at moments of great strife and great struggle.
It's tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable -- that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run, and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday, and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were the times that tested the courage of our convictions and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements, our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, as one people.


 Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell began the Republican response with these two paragraphs:
I'm standing in the historic House Chamber of Virginia's Capitol, a building designed by Virginia's second governor, Thomas Jefferson.
It's not easy to follow the President of the United States. And my twin 18-year old boys have added to the pressure, by giving me exactly ten minutes to finish before they leave to go watch SportsCenter.

So, what did you think of last nights speeches? To join the discussion, please click on this link, or below on "comments" (it will have a number in front of it, which is confusing I think) and let us know, or e-mail me and I'll post whatever you have to say.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Removing the "eek" factor . . .

Yesterday in WMRA's weekly news meeting, our conversation centered around tonight's State of the Union address by President Obama. The consensus was that this year's address was, as these addresses go, as important as they get.

After the meeting I did some more thinking about why that is; why it seems extra important that we citizens not only listen to tonight's State of the Union address, but listen civilly. Why it seems so necessary that we discipline our minds to stay open as we listen to what both President Obama and our newly elected Virginia Governor, Bob McDonnell, the Republican responder, have to say.

It occurred to me that it was so important because an awful lot of Americans have gotten into the habit of reacting to what our elected lawmakers say rather than thinking about it. Shouting "eek!", is after all, much easier than carefully weighing conflicting opinions and arguments.

To test this hypothesis, I opened this morning's New York Times, which is widely read on-line across the country, and checked out the comments on the front page article, "President Plans Own Panel on the Debt."

All (at the time) 850 of them.

And I was hard-pressed to find a comment that I would call truly constructive. Instead there were 850 snide, cynical, indignant swipes at the President, or the administration, or Congress, or other people making comments. Clearly people found it more satisfying to express their personal outrage, rather than contribute anything constructive to the conversation.

  Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Back sometime before Christmas JMU professor Sarah O'Connor circulated a speech given by National Endowment for the Humanities Chair, Jim Leach, before the National Press Club. Sarah called it an excellent discussion of the importance of civil discourse, and to my mind it is just that.

The speech's title is "Bridging Cultures," and I thought this passage particularly relevant today, as we all (hopefully) prepare to hear what President Obama and Governor McDonnell have to say:
At issue today is a world struggling with globalist forces on the one hand and localist instincts on the other. Divisions are magnified at home as well as abroad.
It is particularly difficult not to be concerned about American public manners and the discordant rhetoric of our politics. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify—or cloud—thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts.
. . .Citizenship is hard. It takes a willingness to listen, watch, read, and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.
. . .Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Just as polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing approaches such as Lincoln’s call for a new direction “with malice toward none” can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together.

Little is more important for the world’s leading democracy in this change-intensive century than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square.

If we don’t try to understand and respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and our way of life?
To me, the kind of civil discourse Jim Leach is talking about begins with civil listening.

And tonight is an excellent time to do just  that, to begin establishing that "ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square," that NEH Chair Jim Leach talks about.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Aging and the Presidency: Exercises in Focus

At lunch on Saturday, I met and liked immensely another woman of a certain age who is a nationally recognized artist. Trailing behind her is a body of work that demonstrates both her great talent and her great ability to focus on putting that talent to use.

I'm not sure which I admire more: raw talent or a strong, consistent work ethic. Combine them in one person and you can expect the results to be magical. Which, in my opinion, this woman's results are.

We, as woman of a certain age are wont to do, got to talking about life; or, more specifically, about what's left of ours and what we want to do with it. Both of us agreed that we had specific goals, that accomplishing each of them took time and focus, and that we were acutely aware that our productive years were limited.

"Five years," my talented, lunch-time companion said. "I figure it will take five years to do each undertaking right."

Somehow this all got me thinking about being president of the United States.

It was long ago, in conversation with a friend of mine who studied history at the University of Virginia, that I first heard about a theory that the President of the United States is the only major head of government who is head of state, as well. This means our current president, Barack Obama, not only has to run an administration and any wars we're engaged in, ride herd on Congress, direct our foreign policy, and keep an eye on politics, he must also find time and energy to do such things as honor the NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers at the White House and host the White House Easter Egg roll.

This in contrast to other systems of government where one person is head of government and another is head of state.  In England, for example, Prime Minister Gordon Brown runs the government, while Queen Elizabeth II handles the egg rolling.

This morning I opened up The Washington Post and read that President Obama is about to propose a three-year freeze on government spending in all areas not related to national security. Oh yes, I reminded myself, not only does the President have two wars going on, a struggling economy, not enough jobs to go around, a health care crisis, and a dysfunctionally partisan Congress yapping at his heels, he has a staggering national debt to deal with, as well. Oh yes, and there are still those Lakers to be honored and those eggs to be rolled.

If I could sit down for fifteen minutes with President Obama (whom I think even his worst detractors would admit is among the brightest, most thoughtful, and well-educated chief executives we've ever had) I would ask him this: How do you maintain your focus? How do you decide what you can get done and what you have to let go? How do you make sure that, at the end of your four years, you will have taken your best shot at accomplishing those projects you most wanted and needed to get done

His day, after all, is the same length as my creative and artistic lunch-time companion.  And she figures on   five-years per project.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A public display of affection . . .

Carl Kasell called my cell on Friday and left a message saying that  he was safely installed at his hotel, Staunton's Frederick House.

And, he added, a fine hotel it is.

I, of course, saved the message. And not because Carl Kasell's voice is famous. I saved the message because when I listen to that voice, I feel a rush of affection.

For me, the whole tone of the next day's doings seemed an exercise in mutual affection.We WMRA folks thought we were there to enjoy Carl Kasell; Carl Kasell seemed to think he was there to enjoy us.

Photographer Steven Johnson was there as the official WMRA photographer. I could blather on for paragraph after paragraph about the fun we had on Saturday, but I think I'll let Steve's pictures do most of the talking, instead.

Mingling in the upstairs lobby, before taking the stage at Blackfrairs. Note that Carl is wearing a name tag, because, until he opened his mouth, no one knew who he was.

On stage at Blackfriars

Thanking an audience volunteer, after she'd assisted him with one of several magic tricks he performed.

The public, displaying affection. Morning Edition host Bob Leweke and his wife, Tracey Brown, are second row, right.

Taking a question

The end. Or, maybe, the beginning. The audience stood both times.
American Shakespeare Center's Director of Marketing, Erik Curren, and his wife, Lindsay, are third and fourth from the right. (And we couldn't have done this without Erik's help and the hospitality and help of the entire ASC crew. Bravo!)

It is a rare and lovely experience to finally met someone who's professionalism you've long admired; whose voice has guided you through decades of cataclysmic events; and to find out that he is also a very, very, very nice, unpretentious and warm person.

Thanks for coming, Carl. Thanks for coming, every one of you who was there on Saturday. Thanks to Frederick House, The Staunton Grocery, The Dining Room, and Blackfriars Playhouse. It was a grand party.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Recycling myself . . .

This is the day of WMRA's Carl Kasell Caper at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. Which means I'm posting this at about 6 a.m.and my brain is not awake yet.

So, I'm going to use as today's post a book review that I just did for of a novel that I both enjoyed and found profoundly thought-provoking.

Conflict, Marital And Military, In 'Small Wars'

'Small Wars'
Small Wars
By Sadie Jones
Hardcover, 384 pages
List price: $24.9
January 21, 2010
I may have started reading Sadie Jones' Small Wars simply because I was drawn to the figure on the cover, to that beautifully groomed, 1950s woman leaning against a pale rough wall, her head in her hands, so obviously distressed. She is decorous, genteel — and clearly uncomfortable. And human discomfort is a literary situation to which I'm drawn.

In her short literary career, Jones has shown herself a maven of discomfort. She writes of sensitive, intelligent people adrift in societies run according to arbitrary social rules, the morality of convenience and the repression of disruptive feelings. Her lead characters are sympathetic (to the reader, anyway) misfits.
Jones' first novel telegraphed this theme by its title. The Outcast is a family tale, set in England in the middle of the last century. It's about a middle-class boy who watches his mother drown and then must deal with his emotions by himself as everyone around him retreats behind conventional repression. As he grows up, the boy increasingly cannot reconcile what he feels with how everyone around him acts. He is eventually branded a societal outcast, which Jones sees as liberating.

In Small Wars, Jones' second novel, the theme is similar, but the setting makes it a much compelling read than The Outcast. Small Wars tells the story of a thoroughly decent British Army major, Hal Treherne, and his wife, Clara (the intriguing figure of the cover). It's 1956, and Hal's been posted to Cyprus, assigned to help lead the British army's efforts to hang on to one of the last remaining fragments of its empire. The Trehernes, swaddled in the insularity of the British middle class, arrive in Cyprus ready to do their dutiful best for what they assume is a just and noble cause.

Reality penetrates the thick wall of British army decorum only gradually. Eventually, both Hal and Clara must face this world as it actually is: Cyprus is an impoverished, bleached land, whose people are at odds with themselves as well as the British. As for the gallant war effort Hal is supposed to help lead:
There was no truth. It was a nothing, laughable Mickey Mouse conflict; it was a sinister time of terror and repression ... There was no heart to it. It had become a thing driving itself with no absolutes to unravel ... never a solution and never, like the conflict itself, a final truth you could point to and say 'There! A solution,' because what is a solution? History doesn't end.
In plopping her characters down in the middle of such a "Mickey Mouse" conflict as Cyprus (which, by the way, she has meticulously researched), Jones sets the decent, loving, innocently conventional Trehernes into the middle of everything they are not. Hal is asked to perform a succession of increasingly brutal and nonsensical acts, which sets his loyalty to (and ambition within) the British army at odds with his innate decency and gentleness. Clara then struggles to love a man who is at war with himself and whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic — and, for one evening, brutal and vile.

Eventually, both Trehernes must decide whether to take shelter in convention or strike out on their own.
What makes Small Wars so elegantly relevant today is that it asks this: How can well-meaning, decent people flourish and wage wars of dubious purpose at the same time? It's a question that resonates deeply in 21st century America, where our own soldiers are currently fighting two "small wars."

If you'd like to read a passage, there's one posted with the review at

Friday, January 22, 2010

Celebrating excellence?

If you go to the homepage of the Pulitzer Prizes, this is what greets you -- at least on Friday, January 22, at 7:36 a.m.

Journalism entry deadline is February 1, 2010

          The deadline for submitting entries in the 2010 Pulitzer Prize Journalism competition is February 1, 2010 (for postmark). Journalism published in an eligible newspaper or news site during 2009 may be submitted. Entry forms and guidelines can be downloaded from the How to enter page.
The Pulitzer Prizes, as I'm sure you know, reward excellence in newspaper journalism, literature, and musical composition. And if you click on the "eligible newspaper or news site" link, you will see that -- no surprise -- the Pulitzer people have again redefined what excellence in journalism is as reputable internet journalists continue to contribute more and more to our national conversation.

Okay. Next I'd like to take note that sadly, smarmily, John Edwards admitted he is the father of Rielle Hunter's baby.

Quickly getting back to rewarding excellence in newspaper journalism, I saw a Howard Kurtz story in yesterday's Washington Post announcing that "the executive editor [Barry Levine] of the National Enquirer . . .plans to enter his paper's work on the John Edwards scandal for a Pulitzer Prize."

The following is an excerpt from Mr. Kurtz' story:
While the Enquirer specializes in celebrity gossip, it has landed a series of exclusives that the rest of the press has wound up chasing. These range from its reporting on the O.J. Simpson case in the 1990s, to its 2001 disclosure that Jesse Jackson had fathered an out-of-wedlock child, to its 2003 report that Florida authorities were looking into prescription drug abuse by Rush Limbaugh.
Mainstream news organizations, unlike supermarket papers, do not pay for information. In the Edwards saga, Levine said, "the fact that we practice checkbook journalism, and we make no bones about it, certainly helped. But we've had every aspect of reporting, from pursuing financial documents to stakeouts to cultivating sources. Along the way, there were times when some sources came out of the woodwork and, for a tip fee, would lead us in another direction and help with the story."
This all raises so many unsettling questions in me? Can journalism that uses paid sources be considered "excellent"?  Is it journalistic snobbery or journalistic standards to find Barry Levine saying his paper deserves serious consideration for a Pulitzer just a tad uppity? Can a tabloid that breaks one legitimate news story side-by-side with many illegitimate news stories expect the legitimacy of that one legitimate story to remain untarnished by its journalistic company?

Oh dear.

I am a fan of a broad interpretation of the concept of excellence. I also like to think of myself as non-judgmental--of John Edwards, anyway. But I'm not so sure I can take the high road quite so firmly when I think of the National Enquirer deliberately pandering to Americans' prurient nosiness about John Edwards. You see, I firmly believe that the National Enquirer broke the John Edwards sex scandal story just to make money off feeding a part of us that just shouldn't (oh dear, that word is the essence of judgment, isn't it?) be fed--our penchant for tittle-tattle.

That the Enquirer's editor should then claim his paper deserves consideration for excellence in journalism, I just find a bit much.

That I feel this way, however, does not mean the National Enquirer doesn't deserve consideration for a Pulitzer. It did, after all, break the story that toppled a presidential contender.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Radiohead model of monetizing journalism. . .

In 2007 British alternative rock band Radiohead released their seventh album, In Rainbows, as a digital download, asking listeners to send in what they thought it was worth. I learned about this in 2009, when I ran a Civic Soapbox by JMU student Ted Ghaffarian that mentioned it.

Hmmm, I thought. Very, very interesting.

For the last decade or so, we journalists have been madly assessing the Internet's impact on our profession. Of course, what we're really madly assessing  (once we've touched on such high-minded concerns as the future of well-sourced journalism) is the impact of  the Internet on our paychecks.

Print journalists have been hit the hardest. The newest trend among newspapers appears to be layoffs. If they are to survive at all, print newspapers must figure out how to monetize themselves on the Internet.

Yesterday, I saw on NPR's website that the New York Times is going to start charging for full web access in 2111. Wow, I thought. For everyone in my line of work, this is big news. I, like most people I talk with, am leery of plans that expect people to pay for news coverage they've long enjoyed for free. The prevailing wisdom appears to be that we'll all just go elsewhere for our news coverage.

Then last night there was a fascinating discussion on The PBS News Hour during which two pundits  discussed both the back story and the ramifications of the Times' decision. At some point in this conversation, one pundit mentioned the way The Miami Herald now tags each of its news story with two separate links.

I visited the Herald's site first thing this morning and, indeed, found two links at the end of every article. The first link offered a discount on home delivery of the paper.

And here's the second one.

Wow, again!  The Radiohead monetization model applied to commercial print journalism. My initial reaction is (in the Harry Potter sense of the word) brilliant!

The question, of course, is, will people do this? Will readers pay voluntarily to keep reputably-sourced, commercially-modeled journalism in business?

At some point, I'm going to make a few calls and try to find out how the Herald's experiment is working. It might have to be after this weekend, after Carl Kasell has come and gone, but I am going to find out!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Generational sentimental journeying . . .

I got an e-mail yesterday afternoon just as I was heading down to Staunton to put finishing logistical touches on WMRA's weekend Carl Kasell Caper. It was from Joe Matazzoni, arts editor at, asking me if I had any thoughts for Monkey See on Love Story, as its author Erich Segal had just died.

Monkey See is NPR's slightly, delightfully snarky pop culture blog. Its mission, according to itself, is ". . . to be both a friend to the geek and a translator for the confused." If you want to take a direct look at Monkey See (which I highly recommend), here's a link.

Erich Segal's career was as varied as careers get. He was a respected Classics professor, screenwriter (Yellow Submarine was in part his work), and also a long-term sufferer from Parkinson's. But Segal is best remembered by my generation for Love Story, a tear-jerking book and movie screenplay that, for a while, a lot of us took quite seriously.

Anyway, I always have thoughts; so when I got back from Staunton, I filed the following.

Remembering Erich Segal, Novelist and Sower of Sorry-Saying Boomer Angst

Erich Segal at Cannes, 1971.
Love Story author Erich Segal at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
By Martha Woodroof
Love means what?
I was 23 in 1970, when Love Story, that gonzo-selling book and movie, hooked my generation with its tagline: "Love means never having to say you're sorry." We (my fellow baby boomers and I, after crying ourselves dry at the movie theater) mistook this line's bathetic puzzlement for astute analysis. To our everlasting embarrassment, we credited author Erich Segal (news of whose death broke today) with deep thinking about relationships.
Now we boomers are a talky generation; late-night conversations about nothing were a staple with us long before Seinfield made nothingness chic. And as I remember it, I personally had many a late-night discussion about the relationship between love and sorry-saying. Most of these ended with us concluding one of three things:
  1. If you loved someone — as in really, really loved them — then you should give them a pass in the apology department.
  2. If someone loved you and you behaved somewhat skunkily, so what? Who me? Say I'm sorry? I don't think so.
  3. If you were the one behaving badly, then the other person (if they really, really loved you) would just know you were sorry. So saying you were sorry was not only less soulful, it was also redundant.
Then we moved on, grew older. And I hadn't thought about any of this for a while, so it wasn't until about five years ago that I had an epiphany: Segal's famous tag line wasn't written to impart wisdom; it was written to sell books and movie tickets. If my generation thought it had to mean something, then that was just another one of our many problems.
So here's to you, Erich Segal. You wrote one hell of a tag line — one that just may have been responsible for a couple of decades' worth of dysfunctional relationships.
Martha Woodroof reports and blogs for member station WMRA.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's election day for all of us . . .

Republican Scott Brown, Democrat Martha Coakley, and independent Joseph L. Kennedy (Globe file photo)

Today is the day Massachusetts holds its special election to replace Senator Edward M. Kennedy in the U.S. Senate. And the whole country is watching. At stake is the Democrats' 60-vote filibuster-proof majority, which probably means that the late Senator Kennedy's dream of healthcare reform is at stake, as well.

You cannot get much farther from Massachusetts than Los Angeles, yet the Massachusetts election rates a banner link at the top of the front page of the LA Times online. There's also a front page article in the Chicago Tribune, and the race is being closely followed in the Houston Chronicle (through AP reports) which also ran in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

There is massive coverage in both The New York Times and The Washington Post (where it rates lead-article status.) Only the southern newspapers I scanned -- The Miami Herald, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Charleston, S.C.'s Post and Courrier -- decided the Massachusetts special election was not front page news.

We cannot vote, of course. The decision of who should replace Senator Kennedy in the U.S. Senate is Massachusetts citizens' alone. The only out-of-state interference allowed is money -- and millions have poured into both campaigns.

All the rest of us can do is hope that Massachusetts voters cast votes based on informed thinking rather than slogan-driven emotionalism. The future of national healthcare reform is all that's at stake.

Any thoughts?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Thoughts on our newest national holiday . . .

For one afternoon when I was almost thirteen, I took part in the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Greensboro was my hometown; Woolworth's was my favorite place to lunch. I'm not sure I'd ever noticed that black people never sat beside me at the counter, but only ate take-out hot dogs standing up. One's home is one's home; things are how they are. I was fascinated, instead, by the women who waited on me with their up-swept hair and fabulously flowered handkerchiefs sprouting from their breast pockets like orchid corsages. Next to them, the skin color of my neighbors held little interest.

My parents were admirers of Gandhi, so I'd heard about non-violence. And I'd heard Dr. King's name mentioned in the same sentence with Gandhi, so I knew he advocated non-violence as well. But I didn't know what non-violence was or how it worked until that afternoon at Woolworth's.

What I remember is standing in a line with other white folks, with a line of black folks on either side of me. When it was my turn to sit on a lunch counter stool, one of those fabulously flowered handkerchief ladies stepped forward and ask me what I'd like to eat. I then turned to the black person seated next to me and said, "This person was here before me, so they should order first." At which point the handkerchief  lady, under strict orders from management not to serve persons of color, shrugged, stepped back, and I and my black neighbor sat there until our allotted time on the stool was up. At which point, we got up to make way for the next person.

I remember there was a crowd around us as we sat in. I remember a lot of angry muttering and posturing coming from that crowd, but I don't remember being afraid. Of course, as a twelve-year-old white girl, I was a member of a protected class. I have no idea how my black neighbor on the next stool felt. I know things got dicey and unpleasant later on in the sit-in. But I don't think there was ever real violence.

The idea behind the sit-in was, of course, to cost Woolworth business; to attack racism in its pocketbook. And it worked. Greensboro's Woolworth's closed for a while (after a bomb threat) and then reopened to serve all lunch counter customers sitting down.

It wasn't until much later that I understood it had been Martin Luther King's preaching of the gospel of non-violence that had fired the four black college students from North Carolina A & T to quietly sit down at my Woolworth's whites only lunch counter and begin their non-violent assault on the town's racism. But I think I was aware even at twelve, of the colossal  power loosed around me.  It amazes me now to think of Dr. King's message of non-violence; of those four young men inspired to simply, quietly, bravely do what was right in the midst of a wrong-headed society.

I love this holiday. It always regenerates hope in me that human beings can somehow right the multitudinous wrong-headednesses still operating in the world.  On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I like to think about how Dr. King taught my generation this truth: We as individuals can make a real difference by not going along with what is wrong; and instead, doing what is right.

We can ignore this truth, we can chose to not do it, we can put off doing it until tomorrow, but we can never not know that each of us doing what we know is right does make a difference.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Help! Ushers needed for next Saturday!

No weighty, philosophical blog post today. No news flashes! No story-telling! Nothing but a plain old plea for help with WMRA's Carl Kasell Caper!

Thinking over logistics for Carl Kasell's appearance at Staunton's Blackfriars Playhouse next Saturday, it occurred to me that we could use four volunteers to stand at the four theater entrances and take the "tickets" the rest of the audience picks up at the will-call window. So, this is a plea for four volunteers to do just that.

What you get -- as well as my undying gratitude -- would be  two seats to the Carl Kasell event.

What you would have to do is  show up at the Blackfriars at 9:45 a.m., Saturday, January 23rd, to meet with me in the lobby and go over a few simple instructions. When the theater opens at 10:00 a.m., you (while your guest saved your seat)  would stand at one of the theater entrances and take the passes that people who have reserved seats at the event  have picked up at the box office.

As soon as Carl takes the stage, you would sit down and enjoy the event.

At the end of the Q & A session, Tom DuVal (or maybe Carl) will announce that any WMRA donations will be welcome and that volunteers will be holding the hats at the exits if anyone wants to kick in a few bucks. At that point, you get up and stand at your entrance again, holding whatever I've found to hold contributions (an actual hat? a bucket? a basket?) until everyone's out of the theater.

Then you take the money and run. . .

. . . over to me, of course. Where you'll get a big hug for helping out (if, that is, you like being hugged!)

If you're interested, please e-mail me post-haste or call 540-568-3818 and leave a message. We shall have fun, I promise!

Friday, January 15, 2010

It's impossible not to write about Haiti . . .

As a human being, it is my responsibility to do what I can to help the people of Haiti; just as it is yours. You and I may not be able to do much, but we can do something. The little girl in the photograph below may have survived, but she's going to need medical attention, drinking water, shelter, working sanitation, clothing, and food. And help finding any family she has left.  
(Photo: Carol Guzy/Post)

To help us do what we can, Google has set up a crisis response center. It offers information about, and links to, reputable organizations who are in Haiti. I'm sure there are many other reputable organizations working in Haiti, and I would be grateful if anyone reading this blog who knows of one would post a link to them as a comment to this post.

A friend of mine sent me this account from Kim Dumback, a physician my friend knows who is working in Haiti. Solomon is a foster child Kim and her husband, Patrick, are caring for and trying to adopt.
We are safe.  The country is in ruin and chaos.  We lost so many friends.  Our work place was flattened with all my students inside.  I had just given them a class and told them "see you next week."  I pulled some of their bodies out of the rubble yesterday.  Yesterday morning there were still voices inside, but we all were having a hard time reaching them.  The one person we pulled out alive yesterday bled to death on the way to the hospital which is more like a place were people go to die because they can't even begin to treat the people lining up for help.

All my medicines, medical supplies, lab was buried under CONASPEH as the 6 floor building now is one huge rock pile.  I've never felt like such a worthless tool in all my life.  I had a car full of injured on Tuesday evening trying to get them to the hospital that wasn't even opening their doors because a wing had collapsed killing several of their doctors and they didn't have staff or resources ready to see the mobs coming to be treated.  So instead Patrick and I carried bleeding people back to their families so they wouldn't be alone.

It's a small miracle we are safe and alive... that the group that was visiting is safe and alive.  I'm not taking it lightly and despite being refugees trying to figure out where to sleep each night, where to get food for Solomon, and what to do next, we are counting each moment as an incredible blessing.

I'll write/blog more as I get caught up on e-mails and letting people know information as we get it.  A friend in the city has taken us under his wing (he as a family with small children as well) and showed us a hotel high in the mountains to stay for the next two nights.  Yesterday Patrick and I retrieved a few things from our apartment building, jumping at every groan as we did the stupid thing and REENTERED a building that had partially collapsed... but thanks to that, we hopefully will have e-mail for a few days and can stay in contact since the phone systems are either jammed or down completely.  The next day or so we'll try to get ourselves together and make a plan, find our bosses (who survived) and figure out where to go from here.  There is more need then ever, but the safety situation may get very tenuous the longer the masses go without food and shelter.  Everyone--no matter whether their house fell or not, is terrified to go inside.  The streets are packed with people just sitting... stunned.  Tent cities are going up in all areas that had some space.  Parks are filled, our work out center constructed a big tent in the soccer field for people to come stay.  The supermarkets all collapsed, so far the street markets haven't gotten going yet... so food will be the next big crisis.   I am hoping the water treatment centers didn't completely collapse and can start services soon.  Yesterday there was none.

Please pray for Haiti if you are so inclined.  We are ok, are safe and are taking things one day at a time.
Kim and Patrick have maintained a blog during their time at Haiti. It gives one a masterful, personal feel for life in their adopted country, both before and after the earthquake.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

We non-profits stick together

As you may have realized while listening to us WMRA staffers raise money, worry about money, and hope that old money tree in the side yard at 983 Reservoir finally starts bearing fruit, WMRA is a non-profit. In other words, we get by with a lot of help from our friends.

And, as we all get back what we give, WMRA also gladly gives help to other non-profits--mostly through our on-air announcements of other non-profits' events and through listing them on the Events page at But occasionally, when time permits, we do other helpful things as well.

Lexington's Boxerwood Gardens describes itself as "a woodland garden and nature preserve." If you go to its website you'll learn that "the thirty acre site contains six distinct habitats and fifteen acres of mature, naturalistically planted trees and shrubs, featuring both native and unusual plant specimens."

Boxerwood came into being back in the middle of the last century when one Dr. Robert S. Munger, MD, decided to begin landscaping the 30 acres surrounding his new home so that it didn't look too landscaped. It is a truly beautiful, restful, interesting site -- and sight.

It is also a non-profit.

I share a literary agent with Lexington's Alison Baker, a fine short story writer (How I Came West and Why I Stayed), and we became friendly when she did a Civic Soapbox. Alison and I have quite a bit in common, including the fact that we'd both rather be outside than in.

Alison supports Boxerwood in many ways, including with that most valuable of commodities, her time. A while ago, she asked me if I'd be willing to host a two-part essay writing workshop at Boxerwood; certainly to raise some money ($50 bucks admission for both workshops, all going to Boxerwood), but also to get some new people out there. And I said, sure. As long as they were held on a Saturday.

I'm happy to report that these two workshops are indeed going to take place Saturday, February 6 & Saturday, February 13, 10 a.m. - 12 Boxerwood.

Personally, I'm never happier than when I'm sitting around with a bunch of people talking about writing, and I've done lots of these workshops -- all, before, at no charge. But I figure if my hosting an essay writing workshop at Boxerwood provides people with an excuse to give that beautiful place 50 bucks, and gives me yet another excuse to hang out with writers, then it's all okay with me.

I use a format in these gatherings that welcomes both established writers, just hungry to talk about writing, and those who've always wished to write but, somehow, have never done it. I'll also touch on blogging, which I see as related to essay writing, but not at all the same thing.

I figure that, since you listen to WMRA and read this blog, you're probably interested in both writing and nature. So please consider this your personal invitation to attend those two February workshops at Boxerwood. DO NOT BE SHY IF YOU DON'T (YET) CONSIDER YOURSELF A WRITER. I would love to see you there.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fear and Aging in America . . .

Note: I thought, as we all age and more than half of us are women, these thoughts might be fun!

American culture’s message to me as a sixty-two-year-old professional woman is pretty unambiguous: Be afraid—be very afraid. Why? Because un-enhanced as I am, people are going to know I’m sixty-two.

Let me be very clear about exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t mean society’s message is that I should be afraid simply because I am sixty-two—growing old is grudgingly accepted as the tatty, but inevitable, result of not dying young. What I should be afraid of is looking my age. Professional marginalization, I am told, is only one more wrinkle away. It is foolish of me to thumb my nose at Botox and remain my un-enhanced self.

Of course, I do eat right, get plenty of sleep, observe daily sacred gym time, but that only helps keep me healthy. It is not the same as cosmetic enhancement, and so—according to prevailing American cultural attitudes— it is not enough to escape the professional (and probably personal) dust bin.

You know, no matter how many times I’m preached the gospel of cosmetic enhancement, I just don’t buy it. I view American culture’s alleged worship of youth—before which so many of us tremble—as a myth created to sell wrinkle cream and hair dye. Yet even I have to admit that it’s a myth with teeth, because it’s gobbling up the self-image of millions of us boomer women. The male in our society, of course, has his own struggles with aging, but I would posit they are pretty thin gruel when compared to a female’s. All you have to do to see the sad results of boomer women cosmetic efforts to retain their self-images as babes is turn on the television. Most females over a certain age look like their own ghosts of Christmases past.

So why is my generation of women doing this to ourselves? Why are we so terrified of launching ourselves on the inevitable adventure of looking older? What makes us so afraid of becoming marginalized by our wrinkles?

I have most of my epiphanies (such as they are) in the shower. And one morning, I had this one: Sadly, dear sisters, we have met the enemy; and, in the matter of dealing with our fading plumage, it is—at least to some extent—us.

Here’s the deal as I see it.

I’m a boomer, honed by the second wave of feminism that flourished from the mid-Sixties to the early Eighties. I came of age demonstrating for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, refusing to take up residence in society’s designated box for girls. I've always seen the women of my generation as unafraid to change, as people who viewed life as being about more than conforming to some cookie cutter norm. I—along with most of my good female friends—worked alongside men in competitive professions, stoutly resisting all attempts to patronize, underpay, or harass us because of our sex. Along the way, we raised children, loved men (and each other), played hard, and generally tried to be both productive and kind.

Then, around forty, we began losing steam. Looking back, I can see that my generation had confidently rebelled against others viewing us as sex objects up until the point in our lives when we stopped being viewed as such. At that point, a lot of us became obsessed with trying to look as though we still were viable sex objects. It was as though by focusing so hard on reformatting how others thought of us, we’d neglected to figure out ways to think about ourselves; we’d failed to come up with a gender self-image that went beyond rebelling against society’s categorization of us by our looks and sexual attractiveness.

The big biological difference in me now from when I was a babe of 30 is that I can no longer produce children. This makes it only natural that whatever plumage I had to attract mates has faded. The rest of me, however—brain, heart, sense of humor, ability to get good work done—is all still going strong. In my experience, that is still how my colleagues, friends, daughter, and mate think of me. Shouldn’t that have also been how I really thought of myself in the past, think of myself now, and expect to keep on thinking of myself into the future?

What I’m suggesting here is that we women don’t fear aging as much because we’re worried about how others will think of us, as because we don’t know how to think of ourselves—we are still not confidently in touch with what it means to be a woman beyond an ability to attract mates. Or if feminist theorists, operating in the rarefied air of academia, have figured it out, nothing useful has trickled down to the rest of us. Most Boomer women still struggle with intuiting a lifelong continuum of gender-based self-worth.

Of course, the saddest part of this struggle is it’s not just about us. What kind of a message are we giving our daughters by buying (literally) the fairytale that a man’s societal worth endures, while a woman’s fades with her looks? Because isn’t that what we’re saying with every gray hair we cover and every wrinkle we chemically plump because we’re afraid not to cover and plump?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I see nothing wrong with bedecking yourself. I know this glorious woman who went gray very young and then suddenly, in her fifties, dyed her hair bright red. She did it, I’m convinced, to have fun, to decorate herself. The problem, as I see it, comes when we dye our hair because we fear our gray-haired selves. The sticks and stones of others' opinions have long been flying at us. It’s our post-forty selves who have given them the power to make us fear who we are.

We boomer women stood (and still stand—witness Mrs. Clinton’s campaign) together to push for workplace and political rights, and equal partnership in our homes. Our daughters are better off for our efforts. Don’t we owe those same daughters less desperate role models for how to deal with the inevitability of fading plumage? Isn’t it time we explored who we are beyond our babehood?

It is, after all, who we’ve always been.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Carl Kasell seat reservations begin at 9 a.m. today!!!

It's the day to reserve your 1 or 2 seats to visit with NPR's Carl Kasell, at Staunton's Blackfriars Playhouse on Saturday morning, January 23rd, at 10:30.

We begin taking reservations at 9 a.m. today (Monday) and will keep taking them until we fill up the theater. First contact, will be first served.

We do strongly encourage you to use the web form available at If that's impossible, then call 1-800-677-9672 (1-800-NPR-WMRA) and you'll be transferred to the Carl Kasell seat reservation line.

As I'm in charge of handling seat reservations, for today, as Porky Pig says,

Saturday, January 9, 2010

For Saturday morning, as noir as it gets . . .

I'm a lucky person. Because I write and report on books for NPR, publishers send me a lot of advance copies. Which, as I am an avid and omnivorous reader, turns the FedEx delivery person into a year-round Santa Claus.

Mixed Blood is one such present sent to me by Picador, McMillan's fine literary trade paper imprint. It's a first novel by one Roger Smith, of whom I'd never heard so much as a whisper. But as its subtitle was "a Cape Town thriller," and I'm a sucker for a good thriller, I put it in my pile by the bed and eventually got around to picking it up. And then not putting it down again.

I read Mixed Blood fast, turning one page just to get to the next; even though it is one of the darkest, most unrelentingly brutal books I've ever read in my entire reading life.

Roger Smith, who bills himself in his author blurb as a screenwriter, director, and producer, was born in Johannesburg and now lives in Cape Town. Mixed Blood is set in an area of Cape Town know as The Flats; which, when I began the novel, was as unknown to me as Roger Smith.

So, like any truly curious person, I took to Wikipedia, which begins its entry on the Flats this way:
The Cape Flats (Afrikaans: Die Kaapse Vlakte) is an expansive, low-lying, flat area situated to the southeast of the central business district of Cape Town. To most people in Cape Town, the area is known simply as 'The Flats'.

 Described by some as 'apartheid's ground', from the 1950s the area became home to people the apartheid government designated as non-white. Race-based legislation such as the Group Areas Act and pass laws either forced non-white people out of more central urban areas designated for white people and into government-built townships in the Flats, or made living in the area illegal, forcing many people designated as Black into informal settlements elsewhere in the Flats. The Flats have since then been home to much of the population of Greater Cape Town.
Just look at that picture and imagine spending your life there under the hot African sun, with no job, no hope, and easy access to guns and drugs.

As you might imagine, Mixed Blood is a cheerless, brutal tale of class and race and poverty and crime and the tyranny of petty power. If you are squeamish and don't tolerate brutality well,  I cannot recommend it. If you want to walk the streets of an existence unimaginably far removed from your own, I do. Once I started Mixed Blood, I felt it would be somehow denying reality to put it down. It would have meant I didn't want to acknowledge that such a place as The Flats exists.

Yet isn't that the point of such shadowy fiction -- to hook us with story, and so make us walk paths much, much darker than our own?

Roger Smith is a good, unobtrusive writer. His words never claim attention just for themselves. It's the story that matters to Mr. Smith, and he writes of The Flats and its inhabitants with the authority of familiarity.

Before reading Mixed Blood, when I'd think of South Africa, I'd think of a smiling Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Now I think of Nelson Mandela, Truth and Reconciliation, and The Flats.

I 'm not sure I really wanted to know about The Flats, about how determinedly the dark underbelly of apartheid lingers in South Africa. But now, thanks to Roger Smith, I do know.

Roger Smith's next South African thriller, Wake Up Dead, comes out next month. I will probably face up to some cosmic sense of literary responsibility and read it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

I turn Science Friday over to my sister, the physicist. . .

Who knew the taller of sisters seen in this picture would grow up to get her doctorate in physics from Columbia University (where she was the first female head of teaching assistants). Ruth Hege Howes then went on to thirty-some years of teaching, interspersed with years spent in Washington advising government and time spent advising groups and other governments all over the world. She also authored or co-authored several books, including Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project.

(FYI, the sister on the right grew up to work for WMRA public radio. If you think she's proud of her big sister, the physicist, you're right. And also rather in awe of her ability to grasp the most intricate workings of atomic reality.)

Back in early-ish November, I blogged on an article I read in Newsweek about the possibility of, some time in the future, powering the planet with nuclear fusion (power plants today use nuclear fission). I read the article with interest, wrote about it, and then realized I didn't have a very clear idea about these processes' relative virtues and risks.

Our future power source is not the sexiest issue we face at the moment, but it may be the most important. So I asked my sister, the physicist, to help me (and WMRA blog readers) understand the basic natures of fission and fusion. She was worried that what she sent me might be too dry, but I think it's just fine. I found it a great help to my understanding of the two processes and so well worth spreading around.

Nuclear Energy for the Future
Continued reliance on fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and natural gas) for generation of the majority of electricity in the United States is not an option for three major reasons. First, the majority of the world’s fossil fuel is located outside of the United States. We do have vast supplies of coal, but if we substitute coal for other energy sources such as petroleum and natural gas, we will rapidly deplete our domestic supplies. Most experts feel that the demand for fossil fuel is already driving U.S. policy in the oil-rich Middle East. Certainly, the price of oil already plays a significant role in the global economy.

Second, the global supply of fuel is not inexhaustible. As growing economies such as China, Brazil and India use more fossil fuel, the rate at which the global supplies are depleted will increase. Whether this will happen in twenty years or seventy is open to debate, but increasing scarcity will certainly increase the price.

Finally, burning fossil fuels unavoidably produces carbon dioxide. Most scientists believe that the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is responsible for the increase in global average temperature since the dawn of the industrial age.

So what should we do? Obviously we need to practice energy conservation. Simple measures such as putting in storm windows, raising gas mileage in cars, or using energy efficient light bulbs can save really large amounts of energy and put money in our pockets. Increasing the efficiency of energy use is clearly job 1. However, we will still need a source of energy. One option is nuclear energy which comes in two types which are compared below.
Nuclear Fission: Extracts energy by splitting or fissioning nuclei of one isotope of uranium, uranium-235.
Nuclear Fusion: Extracts energy by combining nuclei of hydrogen isotopes to form helium.

Nuclear Fission: Rate of energy release is controlled because each uranium-235 nucleus must absorb a neutron in order to split. To sustain a fission “chain” reaction, one neutron from each fission must trigger a second fission. This can be controlled by 1) the number of uranium nuclei present; 2) the geometric configuration of the uranium; and 3) the material surrounding the uranium. A nuclear reactor sustains and controls a chain reaction producing a steady supply of heat.
Nuclear Fusion: Energy release is possible only when hydrogen isotopes are heated enough to destroy atomic structure and form a plasma. The plasma must reach a combination of density and temperature that will cause the nuclei to fuse. Because the necessary temperatures are high enough to vaporize any known material, the hydrogen plasma must be contained in a magnetic bottle created by currents in the plasma or external magnetic fields.

Nuclear Fission:  Reactor fuel in the US is enriched, that is it has an increased concentration of the isotope uranium-235. Isotopic enrichment, technically difficult and expensive, is the major barrier to the proliferation of nuclear weapons which use uranium with a higher concentration of uranium-235 than that used in reactors.
Nuclear Fusion:  The heavy isotope of hydrogen (2H) known as deuterium is found in water on Earth. The other heavy isotope of hydrogen (3H) known as tritium is usually produced in fission reactors.

Nuclear Fission: Produces electric power by using the energy released to heat water and produce steam to turn turbines.
Nuclear Fusion:  Produces electric power by using the energy released to heat water and produce steam to turn turbines. Other methods may be possible but have not been demonstrated.

Nuclear Fission:  Has been used to produce electric power for 50 years and currently provides about 20% of the electric power in the US.
Nuclear Fusion:  One demonstration project has produced net energy for a few seconds. Has not been used to produce electricity. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently being built in France, is designed to demonstrate a sustained production of net energy from nuclear fusion.

Nuclear Fission:  Modern reactor designs cut off fission reactions if the reactor begins to overheat. However, the fuel in the reactor contains enough radioactivity so that it melts if it is not cooled. If the containment vessel of the reactor is breached, radiation could be released to the environment.
Nuclear Fusion:  ?????

Nuclear Fission:  Radioactive wastes contain heavy isotopes of uranium that have half lives of tens of thousands of years. Technology exists to safely store these wastes for times on the order of thousands of years which would be long enough for short-lived radioactive materials to disappear. Used fuel is currently stored on the sites of reactors around the country – not a very safe solution.
Nuclear Fusion:  A fusion reactor will produce a high flux of neutrons which will make surrounding materials radioactive although their half lives will be short compared to fission plants. The primary waste will be helium gas. There is still a possibility of the release of some radiation to the environment although less than from a fission reactor.

Nuclear Fission:  It is possible to separate long-lived isotopes from the shorter lived radioactivity and burn the long-lived isotopes to produce more electricity. This extends our supply of reactor fuel. The technology to do so exists, however it poses a risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Fusion:  Materials used in construction of fusion reactors would require storage for times on the order of 1000 years.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

For writers, a house of our own!

There's something to the synergy of place and creativity. Take writing, my own chosen creative outlet. It seems to me that if one has the true wish to write, and you give that person a place that allows the head some space in which to roam, that also offers the essential supports of coffee, bathrooms, and that great ineffability, the right atmosphere, there go the words down on the page.

Give that person the support of other writers and you've got about as perfect a writerly spot as this sweet old world can offer. 

Rachel Unkefer is Vice President and a founding member of Charlottesville's WriterHouse (interior, pictured above), which in this blogger's opinion, is just such a place. It functions as a kind of non-resident writer's colony for anyone within driving distance who wants to write.

I asked Rachel how WriterHouse came to be, and this is what she said:
Our writing group met at coffeehouses for a few years and just found it too noisy and public, so we decided there should be a place in Charlottesville where writers could meet and talk about writing, hold classes and host literary events. We rented a space and opened it up in May of 2008, not knowing whether this was our own quirky vision or whether others would share it. After a year and a half we now have more than 150 members. For me personally the payoff is making new friends and seeing lots of people connect with each other. Along the way I manage to work on my own book and if it's ever published I have an automatic group of several hundred friends to celebrate with.
On Tuesday night, WriterHouse members and guests got together to celebrate the publication of member Laura Bynum's first book, the futuristic novel, Veracity. 

Veracity's publication has a back story that I thought would interest WMRA's own community of listeners and writers, so I asked Rachel to send me something about it for this blog. And also to send me a bit more about WriterHouse in general. And here's what she wrote:

When Laura Bynum phoned WriterHouse one day last spring and explained to Board Member Burnley Hayes that she needed a place to do the final rounds of editing on her novel Veracity, it seemed like a routine call. One of the services WriterHouse offers its members is secure, quiet writing space with a 24/7 access option. As the rest of the story unfolded, Burnley realized it wasn't quite so routine. Laura had been diagnosed with breast cancer on the same day her book had been contracted for publication by Pocket Books (a division of Simon and Schuster), and she was now commuting from Culpeper to undergo radiation treatment at Martha Jefferson Hospital. She needed to keep going on her book to meet the publisher's deadline and also to keep her focused on something other than her disease.
Laura became a member of WriterHouse and began spreading her manuscript out on the floor of one of the writing rooms, holing up for hours at a time to work out the complex chronology of her speculative fiction story. She finished her editing on deadline, beat her cancer, and on January 5th, the WriterHouse community celebrated the publication of Veracity. Because that's really what WriterHouse is—a community.
A lot of people hesitate to join WriterHouse because they don't need a place to write, and I tell those people they're missing the point. It's not just a place to write, it's a community that revolves around writing. It's a gathering place for meeting other writers and commiserating about the work; it’s a place to learn from each other and from instructors with MFAs, visiting authors, literary agents, and journal editors; it's a place where people get to know each other well enough to ask "would you mind reading my story and telling me what you think?" It's also a place where, even if you have a perfectly good writing space in your house, you might get more done because you've made an appointment with yourself to go somewhere specifically to work on your writing with no phone, laundry, chores or family to interrupt you.
It's a place where we celebrate each others' success. Our motto is "any excuse for champagne," so we were ecstatic about hosting a launch party for one of our own. A few dozen gathered on the 5th to hear Laura read from her book and tell her inspiring story, and raise a glass to launch her book into the world. We hope this is the only the first of many members' books we will launch at WriterHouse.

About Rachel, herself. In a previous life she was co-founder and CEO of Silicon Valley-based technical bookstore chain Computer Literacy Bookshops. She is currently looking for a literary agent for her first novel and working on the second draft of her second novel. Her story, "Remote Control," won first place in the 2009 Hook Short Story Contest.

Here's a link to WriterHouse's very tempting website. Lucky Charlottesville writers to have, not just Virginia Woolf's room, but a whole house of their own!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The tracks of history around my home . . .

A couple of years ago, I visited an antebellum house just off Route 42, north of Harrisonburg, to take a look at a derelict slave cabin.

The two-room building sat across the road from the main house. It had been a snug, well-chinked, double cabin, each side housing one family, each side fitted out with a fireplace and wainscoting. It was much, much finer than any slave cabin I'd seen anywhere, including at the homes of our much revered Virginia presidents.

Derelict slave cabins are rare in the Shenandoah Valley, because, for the most part, area land owners didn't farm with slaves. But some historians say -- using the presence of such well-built cabins as their evidence -- they did farm slaves. In other words, Valley farmers raised people of color for the express purpose of selling them.

I remember standing in that cabin and thinking about the weight and puzzlement of history. This is such a gentle, civil area. And here I was, standing on the floorboards of an incongruous piece of its past.

I thought of this again, when Charlie (who's incurably curious) showed me a website he'd discovered on WWII German POW camps located in the Shenandoah Valley.

Timberville PW Camp, Rockingham County, Virginia; 1944 or 1945 photo

A  paragraph lifted from the website:
In seven months of operation, German PWs provided a total of 26,081 man-days of labor—14,635 during the harvest season of 1944 and 14,635 during the 1945 season. The totals represent 5,573 man-days in agricultural work and 5,873 man-days in food processing during 1944, with 8,202 man-days in agricultural work and 6,433 man-days of food processing labor provided during 1945. (Martha note: I know the numbers don't add up, but thought it still gives an interesting picture of what the POW's life was like.)

The camp was dismantled the day after the prisoners departed. This is what its site looks like today.

Again to me, it seems somehow incongruous to have had POW camps located in the hospitable and gentle Shenandoah Valley -- even though, as POW camps go, they seem to have been humane and even comfortable. Just as that double slave cabin was.

Everywhere you love has its past. I need to remember that, to remember the decisions I make today in my personal life and in my life as a citizen will  leave their tracks in tomorrow's history.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Drum roll, please . . .

Carl Kasell is coming! Carl Kasell is coming!

Saturday, January 23rd, 10:30 a.m., 
at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton!

Carl Kasell, the newly retired dean of NPR newscasters, the much-loved Scorekeeper for Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, and (in this blogger's opinion) as close as NPR has ever come to producing a rock star (remember C.K.'s inimitable rendition of Fever!), will be giving a talk and taking audience questions from 10:30 a.m. until 12 noon on Saturday, January 23rd.

Tickets are free, but there are limited numbers. Reservations will be taken beginning Monday, January 11th, at 9 a.m., online at or by calling 1-800-677-9672 (800-NPR-WMRA).

I don't know about you, but I'm excited. It is so rare to meet  someone who both inspires your trust and tickles you!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Superfund sight on New Year's Day . . .

New Year's morning I was driving along Route 151 in Nelson County. That's the state route that winds through the lower reaches of Wintergreen, where the roadside establishments smack of the chic and the chi-chi -- at least those establishments that haven't been closed by the blunt force trauma of the Great Recession. But then, Wintergreen area empty buildings are optimistically empty -- "for lease" and "for sale" signs dot these well-maintained empty buildings.

Nelson County is a wonder of social contrasts. Over the decades I've lived in Virginia, I've watched liberals, environmentalists, historical conversationists, land developers, artists, movie stars, and the wonderful Scottsville theater people dig in amidst the county's indigenous Walton-esque  folks, who stoutly maintain  conservative social and political values. These two populations eye each other warily across America's great political divide. In that respect, Nelson County is America in microcosm.

Take Piney River, a bend in the road that used to be a thriving bend in the road. Back in the days when the U.S. Titanium refinery was humming along. Today it's a Superfund site. Here's a current description of the Piney River, lifted from "Scorecard: The Pollution Information Site:"

"The U.S. TITANIUM Site covers 80 acres near the village of Piney River, Nelson County, Virginia. Between 1931 and 1971, a mine and ore-refining plant at the site produced TITANIUM dioxide for paint pigments. About 80,000 cubic yards of acidic wastes from the ore-refining process were left at the site when the plant closed. Storm run-off from this waste caused several large fish kills in the Piney River in the late 1970s. In 1980, the acidic wastes were removed from the original exposed location and buried in a clay-lined cell. In summer 1982, the State completed a grading and revegetation project at the site. Status (July 1983): Although the recent work has improved conditions at the site, acidic run-off still threatens the Piney River. EPA recently completed a draft Remedial Action Master Plan outlining the investigations needed to determine the full extent of cleanup required at the site. It will guide further actions at the site. The State is currently pursuing an enforcement action against the present and former owners of the site."
Today, 39 years after the refinery closed, driving through Piney River is a grim reminder of what can happen to the environment when humans are loosed on it, unrestrained and hell-bent on making a buck. It has a bleached, arid look, and the ramshackle empty buildings along the road look as though their emptiness is permanent.

There's one brave convenience store still open along the Piney River section of Route 151. On New Year's morning it was humming, older pick-up trucks snugged up to it like suckling piglets to a sow. Inside a gaggle of men who, from a quick glance, looked even older than I am, were grouped around a big Formica table drinking coffee. They were, perhaps, former employees of U.S. Titanium, in all likelihood starting the first day of 2010 exactly the same way they'd started the last day of 2009.

I smiled and waved and wished them Happy New Year. They smiled and waved and wished right back. I almost sat down, but then I thought my presence would disrupt their conversation. It was New Year's Day, after all, surely a day when we are all allowed to gather with our own and celebrate another year survived, another year begun.

I didn't sit down, because I knew if I did, Nelson County's political divide would intrude upon the conversation. I knew this because I'd seen the store's sign on my way in. It was one of those message signs, upon which whoever's in charge can let people know where he/she stands on important issues. And, it being Piney River, what more important issue could there be than the environment?

The sign outside the Superfund site's last remaining operational business read: The Lord showed Al Gore he just don't know!