I’m sitting here writing this column in the company of Suki, a 13-year-old Golden Retriever mix. Suki is not actually my dog but has proven very good dog company for writing nonetheless. Dogs aren’t picky and demanding, you see. Unlike some kinds of animals that we won’t mention until we absolutely must a few paragraphs from now.
There is a reason the word “faithful” is so often associated with dogs. Even in mythology we find Argos, the dog that recognized Odysseus after a 20-year absence. Odysseus finally makes his way home to Ithaca and discovers that Argos, previously lithe and strong, is now an old dog asleep on a pile of cow manure. That faithful animal musters up enough strength to drop his ears and wag his tail. He then dies.
Suki might not be an Argos, but in her own way she’s equally faithful. Good dogs always are.
Writers need audiences; Suki, I’ve found, is gratifyingly appreciative of even the least notable of my labors. Dogs such as Suki are quick to lend a sympathetic ear when a writer like myself needs to work aloud a particularly thorny problem. Dogs also tend to stay at one’s feet dutifully and lovingly, as Suki is doing, while the writer tends to her craft. This is totally unlike — and here we mention that other kind of animal — cats; which, in contrast to dogs, seem hell-bent on destroying the creative process.
Before I get fully onto writing about cats I need to talk about my writing processes a bit so you won’t think I’m just being fussy.
I’ve written news stories sitting in cars. I’ve written during meetings when my attention is divided between the story taking place and the one I’m writing. I’ve written breaking news stories in noisy news bureaus and in newsrooms with police scanners blaring and phones ringing. So please bear in mind that I’m not asking for an entire room of my own like some more delicate writers insist upon. I need nothing nearly as grand as that. I merely request just a little room, the tiniest and smallest of spaces, to think.
But even a smidgen of room, I’ve discovered, is simply asking too much if cats own the writer and the writer’s writing space.
I’ve found that cats, unlike dogs, derail the writing process. It’s not just what cats do physically; it’s their obvious attitude of disdain toward the creative process. They have no respect for the writer. And keep in mind that I have three of these beasts; this means my troubles are tripled.
One of my cats is geriatric, which should mean he’s too old at 18 to be a bother. But that isn’t the case at all. Edgar’s sole goal is to find the warmest and most comfortable place in the house to sleep, and he’s absolutely convinced that place is my lap. The entire time I’m trying to write I’m using one hand to fend off Edgar from climbing up on me, with him all the while whining piteously as if I’m torturing the poor old beast. I am here to attest to you that it is virtually impossible to create great art one handed.
The other two, Agatha and Tuppence (if you notice a mystery novel theme here you would be correct), generally never miss a chance to sit on top of the computer keyboard when I get up for a drink of water. This adds hieroglyphics into the manuscript that confuse me until I figure out one of these cats has paid a visit. Even worse for me and happier for them they occasionally manage to delete hours of work with a mere touchdown of a cat butt.
Agatha is my most stomach-sensitive of the three. She once managed to puke out a hairball on the keyboard while I took care of a personal need in the bathroom. I was truly offended. I was left to interpret her gift as an indictment of my overall writing abilities and writing style, plus I had to clean the mess up and sanitize my keyboard.
On occasion Agatha and Tuppence decide to vie with Edgar for the right to sit on my lap. It is also extremely difficult to create art when three cats are hissing, swatting and caterwauling in the small space that we — me and these three demons — call home.
But as I write this column, ensconced today in someone else’s house, Suki the dog is sleeping serenely at my feet. She waits only to hear me speak her name to instantly bound up and hear me expound on the craft of writing. Her tail I know would wag appreciatively as I talked. And I can picture her big brown eyes intensely anticipating the likelihood I’ll say something of genius at any moment.
Anyone in the market for three cats?
Spring weather like we’ve been experiencing makes clear that we live in a world essentially comprised of two kinds of people.
There are those who bask in the sun and who glory in the profusion of flower blooms; these are our don’t-plan-for-the-future grasshoppers. Then we have our ever-grimly marching ants, those that live among us who maintain a killing freeze is certain to blacken and decimate this world of beauty. The ants are joy killers.
I’ve been both a grasshopper and an ant during different life stages.
These days I’m much more likely to manifest as a grasshopper and to gleefully cut daffodils and forsythia branches for the vase on my kitchen table. I give little thought about anything except my enjoyment in the beauty of these flowers. But goodness knows I’ve been a little ant during certain periods of my life. Quintin the fun-destroyer going about muttering dark prophesies about the future and secretly hoping that the irritating grasshoppers in my life shortly discover the bottom side of a shoe — squish, that’ll teach ‘em to enjoy a beautiful spring!
What I’ve not succeeded in mastering is the middle way, of being what we’ll dub an anthopper. That’s what I truly aspire to be. But combining the best qualities of these two insects, the grasshopper and the ant to create the newly fabled anthopper, is difficult given my all or nothing approach to life.
An anthopper, I think, would enjoy the cut flowers, the sun, the profusion of bloom, but would ensure she has protective covering for the garden nearby. An anthopper wouldn’t get suckered by the garden centers into buying annuals this early … though I did just that this past weekend.
An anthopper wouldn’t ruin others’ enjoyment of this beauty with augurs of toil and trouble, strife and destruction, of certain impending looming horrible excruciating doom — either via a late freeze or upcoming summer discomfort. I’ve heard some of these ants assert, completely unscientifically and based on nothing except that it sounds terrible and frightening, that a warm spring foretells a blazingly hot summer. Which, even if these horrors are actually true, doesn’t change this moment’s reality: We are enjoying one of our most lovely springs in recent memory.
An anthopper story.
Once upon a time there was a grasshopper. The grasshopper fancied herself something of an operatic singer, and enjoyed singing, over and over, “Musetta’s Waltz” from Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
Meanwhile, an ant was hard at work collecting foodstuffs. The ant was certain the endtime was near, that an apocalyptic finale to the world was soon to come. She was equally sure that she’d be spared. So the ant spent a lot of time reading about self-sufficiency and practicing frugal ways.
It was very distracting to the ant to hear “Musetta’s Waltz” sung over and over again. Truth be told, the ant never had liked Puccini, and particularly detested “La Boheme,” and to top it off “Musetta’s Waltz” is unseemly and risqué and is an entirely inappropriate selection to be singing when everyone except that damned grasshopper knew perfectly well the world was going to hell.
So the grasshopper sang and the ant labored, hour after hour and day after day, under the beautiful sunlight of spring, summer and early fall. The ant’s hill, which was made up of dozens of tunnels leading to scores of storage rooms, was filled with dried and canned foods. The grasshopper barely even bothered with shelter — she simply went to sleep each night under a plant frond, something large enough to protect her from the dew, and ate the nectar from flowers during the day. Occasionally the grasshopper would consider putting back some food for the upcoming winter, but then she’d get caught up all over again in singing the waltz, and the thought would disappear like the morning fog when the sun rose.
The days grew noticeably shorter, and the night darkness rolled in earlier each evening. The ant was happy about this. ‘That’ll teach the grasshopper,’ she thought to herself grimly. ‘You just wait.’
One day the grasshopper awoke to a heavy killing frost. Her wings were stiff and cold. The grasshopper soon gave up attempts to sing. It felt like the words were frozen in her throat.
Meanwhile, the ant was watching. Her grand moment had come. The end of the world as the ant and grasshopper knew it had indeed arrived. The ant had six months worth of food to eat and a warm bed to lie in each night. As predicted, the grasshopper had nothing but death to anticipate.
But the ant felt a little uneasy — the grasshopper looked so sad, standing on a frosty grassblade rubbing her little hands together for warmth. And the world seemed so silent without the grasshopper’s trilling of “Musetta’s Waltz.”
Finally, almost against her will, the ant called out to the grasshopper and invited her into the shelter and to share her food. And thus was born the newly fabled anthopper, a being who can experience the middle way.
While I can appreciate that many citizens get caught up in this so-called “March Madness” every year, I no longer have the time to cast anything more than a sideways glance in the direction of the NCAA basketball tournament. Where I once followed every dribble and rebound of the tournament from start to finish, spending every available hour — and most of my hours were all too available in those days, which is the whole point — obsessing over my brackets and trying to will my favorite teams on to the next round by sheer force of concentration (not to mention the wearing of my lucky hat), I now rely on late night recaps on ESPN or the status updates of my Facebook friends to keep me abreast of the tournament.
In other words, it floats in the orbit of my consciousness, but barely so. For me, real March Madness is pressure washing the deck, while trying to find time to get my son’s bat speed up to par for his transition from T Ball to Farm League this season, when he will be adjusting to machine pitches. Then there is tax season right around the corner, and the yard is threatening to get out of control already, and I have a stack of papers to grade. We’ve got to get the house in order for that get-together we’ve been planning, and that basement has been waiting to be organized for months. I’ve got to get my wife’s car over to Asheville for servicing, and now here is the guy to spray for bugs.
It is always something when you are a grown-up with grown-up responsibilities. I envy those that have the time to think about a basketball tournament, I really do. I wish it still meant that much to me, but I just don’t have the time or energy for it.
Pest Guy: “How are you, Mr. Cox? Had any problems with pests this month?”
Me: “No, just a random spider or two. I killed one in the bathtub Wednesday. So, who you got in the Final Four this year?”
Pest Guy: “The Heels, Kentucky, Missouri, and Syracuse. You?”
Me: “I got Ohio State beating the Orangemen. I don’t see them getting there without Melo. I got Missouri, but I don’t love that bracket.”
I followed the pest guy around the house while he sprayed under the deck and around the hedges, debating the relative merits of our Final Four picks as well as the prospects of North Carolina teams. We agreed that Duke looked pretty vulnerable and that N.C. State would be a nice darkhorse team this year if they took good shots and avoided turnovers.
By the time the pest guy left, I had to jump in the car and get it over to Asheville to get a sensor replaced, the one that tells you when the air pressure in your rear left tire is low. On the way over, I had about a thousand things on my mind, not the least of which was, did we really need to spend $200 on a sensor to tell us that the air pressure in our rear left tire was low? Who has time to think about a basketball tournament when questions such as these become part of your life?
I finally arrived, got the car into the garage, and asked the guy if he could just turn off the warning light without replacing the sensor if we would assume full responsibility for the inflation of our tires.
Sensor Guy: “No sir, we cannot really disable that light on the dash for you. Plus, your car wouldn’t pass inspection.”
Me: “I see. It just seems a little silly to me, what with air pressure gauges and eyesight and everything, that we should need a sensor to tell us that we need air in our tires. Anyway, you think Roy’s got the Tar Heels ready to go?”
Sensor Guy: “Yeah, I’d say he does. If they stay focused and play defense for 40 minutes.”
Me: “Think they can take Kentucky? I guess Obama does.”
Sensor Guy: “Yeah, I saw that. I hope God is not a Republican.”
Me: “The Republicans say He is. The Heels may need some divine intervention to score inside on Anthony Davis.”
I had the sensor installed and drove home, stopping off for gas and a sandwich. The guy at Subway noticed I was wearing my lucky N.C. State hat.
Subway Guy: “Go Wolfpack!”
Me: “I heard that. Let’s just hope CJ Leslie can stay out of foul trouble.”
Subway Guy: “I heard that. You want pickles on this?”
I took my sandwich and made a quick cell phone call to my friend, Tim, for an update on the afternoon games. When I got home, my wife and children were downstairs watching Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
Them: “Hey, Daddy/Honey!!! Want to watch this with us?”
Me: “How much longer will it be on?”
Daughter: “It’s almost over.”
Me: “Don’t you guys have homework? Honey, did you remember you were going to pick up some pork chops at the grocery store for that new recipe?” Wife: “Yes, I remember. What’s wrong with you? You seem antsy.”
Me: “Me, antsy? Nah, just got a lot on my mind.”
I went upstairs and logged in on my laptop to check the scores on ESPN. I turned on some Miles Davis and tried to calm down a little. I graded a couple of papers, fed the dog, watered the plants, went to get the mail. Just how many frickin penguins did Mr. Poppers have?
Finally, the family emerged en masse from the family room, and I jumped out of the chair like a pop tart shot out of a toaster.
Wife: “Is there a game on?”
Me: “I think maybe there is. I’m just gonna watch a little TV and try to relax. I’ve just got too much going on this week, I guess.”
Wife: “Uh huh…”
Me: “Don’t forget those pork chops!”
I suppose, in the scheme of things, it is fine to enjoy such things as “March Madness” the way it should be enjoyed, as a pleasant and minor diversion from the crushing responsibilities of being an adult. As long as I am wearing my lucky hat, everything should work out fine.
We — this country, its leaders and all of us — are imperfect. We're human, and that means we get it wrong sometimes.
But this is about something we've collectively gotten right from the very beginning of this republic. It is embedded in the Constitution, is a cornerstone of our civic life and is why we remain a bastion of freedom. I'm talking open government, and this week the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon College is marking Sunshine Week. It's a celebration of the free flow of information and the people's right to know how its government operates. We will continue to argue about the scope and nuances of public records and open meetings laws, but in this country the government must do its business in the open. No other place in the world does it like us.
In this day of Twitter and the blogospere, an increasing number of everyday citizens are turning into reporters who shine a light on the inner workings of our government. We welcome them to join us as watchdogs of local government. We're all fighting for the same cause. And every one of those citizens has the same rights to information as members of the traditional media.
The N.C. Open Meetings Law has its shortcomings — particularly when it comes to personnel law — but it is also clear in its access to information. Here are a couple of points that citizen-journalists and readers might find interesting. The wording is taken directly from a pamphlet produced by the N.C. Attorney General's office:
• Who may inspect or get copies of public records?
Any person has the right to inspect, examine and get copies of public records. People requesting public records do not have to disclose their identity or their reason for requesting the information.
• Can the government require a person to tell why they want to see or obtain copies of public records?
No. The government may not require a person to give a reason for requesting to see public records. Access to public records should be permitted regardless of the intended use, even if a person's interest is business-driven or is based solely on idle speculation.
• Is there a specified procedure for requesting public records?
No. The law does not specify a procedure and there is no specific form for making requests. There is no requirement that requests be made in writing. There is no requirement that the person making the request refer specifically to the Public Records Law when making the request.
The government's responsibility to conduct its business openly also puts a responsibility on the press to report accurately and fairly. In last week's Smoky Mountain News, three letters criticized our reporting — on the meaning of freedom of religion, on political bias, and on the lottery. We believe one of the foundations of a free press is an obligation to offer our critics space to air their opinions. Good newspapers foster civic discourse on the important issues of the day, allowing all relevant sides to air their opinions.
When government tries to withhold information, we will call them out. That's also a part of our responsibility as a voice of the citizens who deserve to know what their government is up to. Western North Carolina is lucky to be served by a several very good newspapers that take this watchdog responsibility very seriously.
I could go into the details and argue that North Carolina still has progress to make on open meetings and public records. As a career journalist, I have run smack dab into the law's shortcomings. But this is Sunshine Week, so let's extol the virtues of a society built on open government, a way of life that sets this country apart from the rest of the world.
I unpacked my *euphonium recently — my first love was music; writing was a fallback position — and started fooling with it again. Despite not having held this horn more than just a few times in some two decades, I’m rediscovering deeply familiar patterns. I’ve also suddenly grasped that I’m less thinking and more instinctual than I might prefer to believe: Methods of doing and being have hardwired my brain.
I found myself holding and inserting the mouthpiece into the instrument in a particular manner — into the horn’s leadpipe, a quick turn to the right and click, the mouthpiece shank is locked safely into place. The euphonium I cradle in a certain way, a familiar, comforting feeling of completeness in my arms, like hugging a child or embracing a lover. The warm-up I used for so many years, too many years ago, I remember perfectly; though the sounds I’m producing are less than pleasing to my ear. I remember what a euphonium should sound like, and this isn’t it.
Patterns and habits dominate me much like my old cat has patterns and habits that dominate him. Edgar is physically beyond catching prey, but still he twitches into kill-it mode when birds land near his sunning spot on the porch. The grooves are deep. Say a Carolina wren lingers and Edgar hears the call of the wild, he forces himself up and starts a geriatric semblance of a stalk. Reality intervenes in the form of achy joints and molasses-like movements, and the old cat soon gives up the painful creeping in favor of comfortable snoozing.
Edgar can no more stop hunting prey than I can forget the warm-up I once sailed through as a mere introduction to hours and hours of daily practice. Today, the warm-up exhausts me, as the mere acts of twitching and attempting a stalk exhaust Edgar.
You could argue that Edgar’s response to birds is instinct and not habit, but I don’t think that is true, or at least not true in totality. I have another cat that “kills” socks. So I feel safe, sort of, in arguing that Edgar’s incessant bird stalking is in some part, at least, habit too.
Do something long enough, create an inner pattern, and it becomes part of you. For better or worse, we are what we do and do.
Patterns are internal and external, of course. The word “patterns” speaks to habit, but more generally to repetition. Not surprisingly, once I started thinking about patterns, it seems as if I see them everywhere: patterns that drive my behavior and ones that occur in a much broader and more universal sense.
A week or so ago I was driving along the road paralleling the Tuckasegee River between Webster and Dillsboro. It was late afternoon. The sun backlit the trees and cast amazing shadows onto the blacktop. I found myself mesmerized and lost in those shadow trees, something incredibly beautiful that I normally would have driven over without appreciating.
Artists, I thought, notice such visual patterns as a matter of course. How wonderful that must be. I’m more likely to notice patterns in sound, both by ear and through the eye in my mind’s hearing, than I am visual repetition.
Spurred by the late author Frank Kermode’s wonderful book, Shakespeare’s Language, I recently reread “Hamlet” to enjoy the patterns our greatest playwright wrote. It was as if a whole new play with endlessly fascinating repetitions opened before me.
Kermode noted that Shakespeare played with hendiadys (hen-DYE-a-dees) throughout “Hamlet.” This is a literary device by which two words are linked by a conjunction to express a single idea. Or put another way, you express a single idea using two nouns instead of a noun and its qualifier. One modern example I found: “he came despite the rain and weather” rather than “he came despite the rainy weather.”
“The doubling devices give the verse its tune, or might perhaps be thought a sort of ground bass that sounds everywhere, sometimes faintly, and the few interruptions in it derive their power to surprise or amuse by the very absence of the now familiar tune,” Kermode wrote.
Examples from when Hamlet first sees the Ghost: “spirits of health, or goblin damn’d,” “airs from heaven, or blasts from hell,” “intents wicked, or charitable.”
Shakespeare was playing with his patterns. I suspect he did so with gleeful abandon (should I write, with glee and abandon?), caught in the endless possibilities of doubleness.
On a much more mundane, me-not-Shakespeare level, I found myself caught like that by those tree-shadow patterns. I just couldn’t quit seeing them after noticing them. And I haven’t quit thinking about them since.
*Euphonium: A member of the low brass family that is pitched the same as a cello or tenor voice. This is a lovely, versatile instrument that is sadly neglected in the U.S., with players relegated in this country to professional status only as members of military bands. At a certain point in my 20s, while busily auditioning for military bands in Washington, D.C., it dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t well suited for the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy or Coast Guard … way too much telling on my part, as it were.
Government at all levels needs to spend money judiciously. It is, after all, our money. I’m not convinced either major political party is doing that very well right now. What we get is competing priorities, which is why voters need to make choices. That’s where things sometimes get complicated.
North Carolina House Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell, a Winston-Salem Republican, makes a strong case for taking relatively drastic and perhaps painful steps to get the state’s fiscal house in order. In a talk he gave last week at a meeting of the North Carolina Press Association in Chapel Hill, the candidate for lieutenant governor revealed a policy wonk mentality and knowledge of issues that left me impressed.
Folwell is part of the new General Assembly leadership that took over in the last session and went right to work to make changes. I’ve criticized some of those moves, as have many other newspaper editors, and continue to disagree with many of them.
Folwell and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, however, both made the case that the moves taken by the new Republican leadership will help North Carolina. Whatever one’s political stripes, what happens in Raleigh is important, and Folwell did a good job of using statistical data to shed light on a few important issues that are flying under the radar of most voters.
Folwell was blunt and matter of fact. He proclaimed that there are “four ‘invisible costs’ that will drive all the legislative issues North Carolina faces through the next generation. Those invisible costs are state debt, public retiree health care costs, state employee pensions and unemployment.”
Without getting into all the numbers, Folwell’s presentation shows that North Carolina’s pension system has not met its investment goals. That means the system will not pay for itself and will need tax dollars to keep it solvent unless things improve dramatically. The state also has obligations toward the cost of retiree health benefits and a huge debt to the federal government for unemployment benefits sent our way during this recession.
Right now the state keeps 4.75 cents of the sales tax on every dollar. To meet the obligations outlined above, Folwell says the state would need to more than double the sales tax to 10 cents. Ouch.
These are obligations to teachers and other state employees that we have to keep. Neither party has yet laid out a plan to solve this problem. As we struggle during this recession to adequately fund current public services — education, health care for the poor and elderly, roads, public safety, economic development, etc. — there is a bit of a monkey on our backs. Better yet, a gorilla.
Elections are coming up. We voters better pay attention, or they’ll be hell to pay a few years down the road.
Pardon my insensitivity. Whitney Houston was a great singing talent, indeed. That was a gift of nature. She was also a criminal.
There are over a million people in our jail and prisons today, and another two million on probation for doing exactly what she did for the better part of 15 years: buy, possess and use illegal drugs. But she got away with it and continued to reap admiration along the way.
The sports and entertainment world, and the media in general, should stop lionizing dead idols who spent a good part of their lives using recreational (and illegal) drugs. The subliminal messages they send to impressionable young people by the millions is not only powerful, it is infinitely damaging and carries long-term consequences.
While we know that hundreds of idols are unapologetic users of illegal marijuana, thousands more have made no secret of using heroin, cocaine and meth for recreation, which is not only illegal but highly addictive and destructive. When they die, mass funerals are held, long-winded eulogies of praise are heard and not a word is spoken about the horrid addiction they suffered by making stupid choices, choices that no child should ever make. Neither do they mention the lifelong pain and misery suffered by family and friends in their wake.
The list of celebrity users, dead and alive, is horrific: John Belushi, Robert Downey Jr., Tim Allen, David Bowie, Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Charlie Sheen, and on and on. That doesn’t even address idols whose addictions were confined to prescription drugs like Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.
What is missing from Whitney Houston’s life, and from most celebrity drug addicts, is owning up, admitting openly that they have been caught up in the yoke of addiction and to use their fame, adoration and influence to steer young people away from the nightmare they will face if they get started on the drug path. Sadly, few do that.
Whitney Houston was talented but selfish. She wallowed in admiration for her musical skills while everyone turned a blind eye to the monkey on her back and her criminal behavior. Her sickness was of choice, not nature. As the world knew of her drug habits, she stood as a disgraceful role model for millions of young boys and girls, a shining example of how and why the drug scene is not so bad. “Look, Whitney Houston does it, it’s cool.” I dare to wonder how many kids vicariously entered the drug scene thanks to stars like her.
I might be inclined to feel more sympathetic if Whitney Houston had publicly used her iconic status in a crusade against drugs. Where are her video messages? Where are her billboards? Where are her ubiquitous anti-drug admonitions?
“Hi kids, I’m that Grammy winner, Whitney Houston. You think I’m cool, but I’m not. I’m a hooked drug user and believe me, I curse the first day I ever tried cocaine and other hard drugs. You have no idea the sickness and pain I have suffered every day, at my own hand. I wish, so hard, I could wipe the slate clean and start over. But it’s too late. I’m an addict. My life is busted. I’m forever craving that hit one more time, a slave to drugs for life. Being rich means nothing.
“No matter how much money I have, it makes my life miserable. I beg every last one of you, don’t ever do drugs, not even the first time. Don’t get sucked into the ‘wanna be liked’ syndrome. Don’t be fooled by people like me. Drugs will eventually kill you. If not literally, they will kill your spirit and ruin your life. Never, never do what I’ve done. You’ll be sorry. That’s a promise.”
So, let’s hear it from the Hollywood stars, the rockers and rappers, musicians and singers. Where are your voices, Robert, Charlie, Lindsey and Snoop Dog? Why aren’t you using your idol status to help save the lives of impressionable kids from the misery you have suffered? Why don’t you care?
Most celebrity druggies haven’t the courage to do that. And neither did Whitney.
Even after laboring for some two decades at various news publications I can’t say that I ever particularly considered myself “a writer.” A reporter, an investigative reporter, an editor, a newspaper administrator: those were some of the labels that fit comfortably, but not writer.
It seemed, I don’t know, too literary, sensitive and highbrow for the sort of work I was doing. Covering car wrecks one day, county meetings the next, the latest political scandal the day after that.
Frankly, many of the people I worked for at those newspapers didn’t particularly value good writing, anyway. They valued fast, accurate and clean reporting, preferably delivered on deadline without any lip. I became fairly adept at that style of journalism, and often revert to straight-up and stripped-down news writing when pressured or tired. Traditional news writing is a nice method of delivering information. But that’s all it does — deliver information.
There is much more that can be done than that. Writers tell stories. Writers, including those at newspapers, can use literary devices such as foreshadowing, scene setting and character development. Writers place facts into context. Writers give readers pleasure or enrage them, but they always keep them feeling and thinking.
Fortunately, The Smoky Mountain News allows, even encourages and demands, experimentation. And since experiments generally fail more than they succeed, that can be a risky proposition for those on high. It’s much easier and safer to squelch any little writerly tendencies reporters might show. Before long, and I speak from experience, reporters simply quit trying to make their news copy interesting. The result is a boring publication that delivers information and nothing else, certainly not reader enjoyment.
The Smoky Mountain News is truly unique in being a publication that so emphatically values writers and writing. In addition to letting on-staff writers such as myself experiment, the newspaper places a strong emphasis on highlighting “literary” writers and their works. Some of the region’s best write columns and book reviews for The Smoky Mountain News, bringing their writing directly into these pages for the benefit of us all.
Because of this emphasis on good writing, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is getting to talk to and interview some of these writers. This isn’t exactly The Paris Review’s Writers at Work interview series, but within this publication’s format regional authors are encouraged to discuss their life and art at length.
There is simply no other publication I know in Western North Carolina providing this level of writer and reader service. A great example is this week’s cover story on writer, storyteller and all-around regional personality Gary Carden.
I’ve known Gary since I was 5 or 6 years old. When I was a few years older than that, say 9 or 10, I clearly remember him setting up for plays in the old school located at Mark Watson Park in Sylva. I don’t know why we were there; my parents didn’t act in plays. But my Dad wrote and Gary wrote and that made for commonalities.
What impressed me most while at that old school-turned-playhouse was stumbling across a box full of classical music cassettes. I assume they were Gary’s.
I was crazy for classical music. It was, as you might imagine, in short supply in my hometown of Bryson City. A box containing classical music recordings was, to me, better than a box full of chocolates, gold, or whatever delights you personally care to conjure up. Here I tell on myself: I stole one of Gary’s cassettes, Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and listened to it rapturously for years.
I was thinking about that tape, and what it meant to me, while interviewing him for this week’s article. He’s 77 now, I’m 45 — a bit of water has passed under the bridge for both of us.
For most writers, the opportunity to talk about writing is a delight. The shared love of writing and literature transcends everything and can bring two otherwise unlike people together more quickly than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced. Although it felt a little odd at first to interview a giant of my childhood, the time spent with Gary quickly evolved into a lovely conversation between two writers.
I enjoyed quizzing Gary on how he works, why he works and where his work emanates from. I always ask writers who has influenced their writing style the most profoundly. Gary talked about Thomas Wolfe. His eyes lit up and he had the look and sound of a true convert — I knew exactly how he felt.
Debussy had that kind of influence on me musically. And what trains the ear trains the eye, too — thanks, Gary, for that lovely tape of music, and I’m only sorry it was theft on my part and not a gift on yours.
In a time-wasting exercise, I was giving thought recently about my earliest memory, which is of getting my knee stuck in the balusters of a porch in my family’s house in Columbia, S.C.
We lived there briefly while my father attended graduate school at the University of South Carolina. My memory might not be particularly earth shattering, but it certainly has the virtue of earliness. I had been born but a short time before, maybe two or three years previously.
What I remember about the knee incident I pretty much spelled out in that first sentence. I can add that my mother or father rescued me. Never the sharpest knife in the drawer, I managed to get stuck several more times in the porch balusters. There apparently was enough room for me to slip my knee between but not enough, for some reason, to pull it out again.
Following the knee incident, my next vivid memory is getting locked with a friend in the bathroom of that same house in South Carolina. We couldn’t figure out how to turn the lock and free ourselves. I’m frankly unsure how this suspenseful incident resolved itself. Though it seems self evident that I was freed somehow since I’m not writing this some four decades later sitting in a bathroom of a residence in Columbia, S.C.
My trip down memory lane started after reading the highly enjoyable The Secret Life of James Thurber. Thurber was writing in response to the then just-published The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. Thurber, in his article, bemoans a lack of childhood romance and drama when compared with Dali, who recounted wild real and imagined happenings that he wrote took place when he was a young lad. Dali, of course, grew up to be a great artist. Thurber grew up to be a fantastic humorist.
Childhoods, I concluded, obviously count for something, so I thought I’d think about mine.
Dali recounted a youth peopled with glamorous and interesting adults. Thurber, an Ohio boy, made do with “mainly … 11 maternal great-aunts, all Methodists, who were staunch believers in physic, mustard plaster, and Scripture, and it was part of their dogma that artistic tendencies should be treated in the same way as hiccups or hysterics.”
I understand Thurber’s feeling of paucity, I truly do, and I feel the lack more and more the older I become. I didn’t, however, even have the great aunts he mentions. They were all well away in Virginia and North Carolina while I was undergoing my formative growth way down yonder in the Deep South.
Though in fairness, I do remember visiting my Great Aunt Tillie in Danville, Va. Tillie was short, don’t ask me why, for Lucille. Great Aunt Tillie was legally blind, but she could make out vague outlines. She was never one to let a little thing like terrible eyesight and possible visual misinterpretations blunt her acid tongue. She once heatedly accused me of biting my toenails though really my legs at the time were just propped up, where admittedly they shouldn’t have been, on the back of her sofa. But I certainly wasn’t biting my toenails, nor have I ever done such a thing — truly.
My personal story picks up steam ever so slightly when we moved from South Carolina to Starkville, Miss. We lived in a small brick ranch house in the suburbs of this fine college town. This was in 1970 I believe, and residents were still experiencing the upheavals of desegregation. But, I was too young to have much cognizance of that important historical event.
What I remember is trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. I remember learning to ride a real bicycle instead of a tricycle. That happened when my sister persuaded me to sit on a two-wheel bike. She gave it a little shove down what Mississippians and 4-year-olds on a bike for the very first time would consider a mountain — a very steep, long, scary mountain.
But of the Civil Rights movement that helped shape our great nation, I have no real memories at all. I do recollect that in first grade in the Mississippi elementary school I attended black and white children tended to sit separately, automatically and apparently voluntarily. On one occasion several black children were passing a blowpop sucker from hand to hand, sharing, but that blowpop wasn’t extended to me or the other white children. I desperately wanted a taste of the blowpop, it was cherry as I remember, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a taste, too.
Which is my recollection of the travails of desegregation in Mississippi. That’s hardly the makings of a good book, a good column or a good story, for that matter. But in the end, I accept that I am the sum of these small, rather lackluster memories, as Thurber accepted he was of his. They are what they are — we can’t all be Salvador Dali, after all. Some of us must just be ourselves.
Do you have a muse?
At different times in my life that role has been filled by different entities. As a teen, I had a very close friend whose quiet yet intense lust for a unique life was a source of inspiration for years. Through late high school and college, I fell head over heels in love with writing and was constantly moving from one author to another for guidance. There have been others who kept me on track and provided inspiration who probably didn’t even realize their influence.
Today it seems the need for that kind of outside inspiration has faded a bit. I feel fortunate to have a relatively rich personal and professional life, and a family that dominates — in a positive way — my emotional life.
As a columnist, though, I’m constantly looking for a muse, or, to put it more realistically, for inspiration and topics for a good column. Over the last 20 years, the place that has helped me the most as deadlines hung over my head like a guillotine has been The Sun. It’s a magazine started in 1974 in Chapel Hill by a New York reporter who sought refuge from the inane stories that too often fill newspapers. As founder Sy Safransky says in his own words, he “wanted to start a magazine that would present courageous, honest writing and respect readers in a fundamental way.”
Today The Sun has 70,000 subscribers. In 1990, the publisher made the decision to quit selling advertising and to just rely on subscriptions. That’s as gutsy a move as any publisher ever made. But the magazine has continued to grow, respected for both its content and its attitude.
I can peruse the feature stories, the fiction or the poetry, the reader contributions or Safransky’s notebook and always come away with a better understanding of some important issue of the day or perhaps a better understanding of myself — and ideas to write about in The Smoky Mountain News. The magazine is truly an original gem in a world awash with so much media that a great majority of it is just not worth spending time with.
Here are a few nuggets from the current edition. This is from an interview with economist Richard Wolf, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose 2009 book was called Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do about It. He has an undergrad degree from Harvard, a master’s from Stanford and a doctorate from Yale:
So the current crisis really began in the 1970s, when the wages stopped rising, but its effects were postponed for a generation by debt. By 2007, however, the American working class had accumulated a level of debt that was unsustainable. People could not make the payments. They were exhausted: exhausted financially, exhausted physically by all that work, and exhausted psychologically because the family had been torn apart by everyone working.
Stay-at-home parents hold families together. When you move everyone into the workplace, tensions in the family become unmanageable. You can see evidence of this in popular culture. The sitcoms of the 1960s showed happy middle-class families, but many sitcoms today show struggling families. Americans are 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 65 percent of the world’s psychotropic drugs, tranquilizers, and mood enhancers. We are a people under unbelievable stress.
Or this thought, from Safransky’s notebook:
I NEED TO CUT more pages from my upcoming book, so I’m trying to keep in mind William Faulkner’s advice to writers: “You must kill all your darlings.” No more procrastinating over whether a particular Notebook entry deserves a berth or needs to walk the plank. It’s nothing personal, I tell a comely paragraph (110 words, perfect posture, not an ounce of fat) as I grab it by the collar and give a little push. You wanted to live forever, I say. Of course you did. Deathless prose, et cetera. Soon you’ll be a drop in the ocean of God’s love. Don’t ask if it’s dark. Don’t worry that it’s cold.
A section called Sunbeams is on the last page of every edition and is collected, I assume, by magazine’s staff. Here’s a great one by a name most will recognize:
In her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, Barbara Tuchman writes about a peasant revolt in 1358 that began in the village of St. Leu and spread throughout the Oise Valley. At one estate, the serfs sacked the manor house, killed the knight, and roasted him on a spit in front of his wife and kids. Then, after ten or twelve peasants violated the lady, with the children still watching, they forced her to eat the roasted flesh of her dead husband and then killed her. That is class warfare. Arguing over the optimum marginal tax rate for the top 1 percent is not.
— Al Franken
If you’ve not read The Sun, give it a try. If you’re a regular, then you may already share my addiction. Good stuff.