It happens to writers much better than me. I know this, because I need only to open a book and find a sentence like this one to be instantly reassured: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”

That brilliant start is by James Thurber in The Thurber Carnival at the beginning of his essay, “What do you mean it was Brillig?”

Let us break down that sentence by the master, shall we?

Thurber, like me, was clearly stuck. He was as stuck as any writer can be. “I am sitting” is writer’s code that he’d been at his desk for hours, perhaps days and weeks, waiting for inspiration. “Inspiration” is the oft-spoken-about muse fiction writers apparently visit on whim. Nonfiction writers like myself and — if I dare even write his name in such close proximity to my own presence —  Thurber, tend to find their muses on deadline. And what a wicked witch she is, the old bag.

Thurber confirms he’d been moldering at his desk for some time with his very next words: “one afternoon several weeks ago.” See? He’d been there several weeks, poor man, unable to find a topic. Think about the wedding scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations and you’ll have a nice mental picture of a columnists’ or essayists’ life when writer’s block strikes: A tortured Miss Havisham, as seen by Pip, dressed in her tattered, yellowing wedding dress and hovering near the cobweb-festooned bride cake feasted on by mice. That’s what the world of Thurber on that day looked like, waiting like Miss Havisham for something that never comes. And my writer’s torture chamber looks like that, too. The greatest or the least of us, it matters not, we suffer the same.

I know the feeling well that Thurber described in his simple sentence of being chained to the writer’s desk (I repeat it here, in case you’ve forgotten his golden words: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”)

I myself sat Sunday for at least 10 minutes staring at a blank computer screen trying to hit on something to write about before I noticed how lovely a day it was for mid December. You remember the sun shone so bright and warmly. So I went about my merry way with the mental justification, “I’ll just get up a bit early in the morning and write.”

Now, of course, it’s early in the morning and I still don’t have a topic, and I’m doing something that I swore on the sacred writer’s Bible I’d never do: I’m writing my column about not having a topic for my column.

Some of the very worst writing abuses ever found in newspapers — and that’s saying a lot given the writing abuses that are found in newspapers — have been wrought by columnists bereft of reasons to write. Columnists who have no topic of interest yet insist nevertheless on being columnists regardless of their total absence of anything meaningful to write upon.

Why, I have railed many a time against these sham writers, usually with a bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other hand because, my dears, one needs props when railing, though I’ve noticed that since I’ve become so amazingly humble and bourbon- and cigarette-less I tend not to rail at all … funny how it works like that.  

Thurber concludes our shining example by noting that he was “staring at a piece of blank white paper.” I’m here to note there is nothing more stimulating about staring at a blank white Microsoft word document than a blank sheet of actual paper. The key words in that sentence are the double repetition of “blank.” Nothing else matters — blank is blank, believe you me, whether it is on a computer screen or at a typewriter.

An aside: Unlike many here in this kiddy romper room that poses as The Smoky Mountain News — I jest not, the newspaper’s owners raid the state’s juvenile detention center for wayward 11- and 12-year-olds when in need of staff, they come cheaper by the dozen that way — I’m old enough to have stared mindlessly at real paper. Real, crinkly paper, children; the stuff you can hold in your hands.

Despite the uncanny similarity of us both being writers, you will be surprised to know there are a few distinct differences between Thurber and myself. First of all, he’s dead and I’m not; he was male and I’m female; we have different names; he was a Yankee and I’m a Southerner.

The End.

(Quintine Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

On Christmas Eve, my dad would always bring home a huge box of navel oranges and bags of pecans, walnuts, and almonds, all still in their shells. These would be arranged, though not artfully, on the fireplace mantel underneath our stockings.

We knew that these gifts did not come from Santa Claus — they came from Florida, where Dad had just been in his 18-wheeler. He was not what anyone would call a healthy eater, but he did love those navel oranges. He’d peel them with his fingers, and then tear off sections for us to share. I liked peeling back the thin layer of skin on my section and then pretending to be a dinosaur devouring hundreds of the exposed, tiny orange trees with one enormous bite. Christmas Eve.

We’d sit around the tree, poking at the presents — the ones from our parents or distant relatives — lifting them to gauge the heft, or giving them a gentle shake to see if anything moved inside, and how it moved, and what sounds issued if it did move. Since these were “parent” gifts, we knew that the contents would be something responsible, but dull, like tube socks or a flannel shirt, but since Santa would not be arriving for several more excruciating hours, and these presents DID bear our names and MIGHT be something at least a little more exciting than usual — maybe a Dallas Cowboys toboggan or a box of cashew turtles — we couldn’t help fussing over them obsessively while mean old Ben Weaver kept trying to get himself arrested in the Christmas episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” which we watched every year on Christmas Eve.

Ben Weaver. The Grinch. Ebenezer Scrooge. If Christmas possessed the magic to turn those hardened hearts, it was no less magical to us because it also had the power to bring our dad home to spend the evening with us, which was a rare and wondrous thing. He spent most of his time out on the truck, driving all over the country, and when he was home, he managed to find, orchestrate, or simply will a card game into existence, such was his love of gambling, or more precisely, his love of playing cards. Gambling was just his way of making the games more meaningful.

In any case, I didn’t begrudge it. I have always enjoyed, even admired, being around people who are in their element, doing what they love, and my dad was in his element playing cards. When we got a little older — old enough to drive — we knew we could find him at the golf course or the pool room or Southside Restaurant or Grady’s General Store playing gin for 10 or 20 or 50 dollars a hand, depending upon the daring, foolishness, and/or relative wealth of his opponent at any given time. He almost never lost, and when he did, he would usually win the next four or five hands in a row. He understood the game from the inside, somehow. If “Good Will Hunting” had been about cards, my dad would have been played by Matt Damon.

We’d find him, and then watch him play for 20 or 30 minutes. It was like watching a detective sweat out a confession, as he toyed with his opponent, joking one minute, grimacing the next, arching an eyebrow, the meaning of which was impossible to decode. The other guy would try to read something in his face — a huge mistake, a fatal mistake, as he transformed suddenly from a detective to a vampire, glamouring the poor fool into playing out another losing hand, and then handing us the proceeds to pay for gas, arcade games, fast food, or whatever escapades might await us on a Friday night in Sparta.

How many of our weekends, automobiles, or college classes were funded over the years from gambling is impossible to say, but suffice to say it was a lot. My sister once got a bedroom suite because a guy couldn’t pay. I once got my house painted.

Last week, my wife bought home a huge bag of navel oranges on the eleventh anniversary of my father’s death. It was just a coincidence, but this convergence brought him back with a force I haven’t felt for awhile, though he is, as he always has been, dead or alive, at the edge of my thoughts and dreams, barely out of reach, but still always there somehow, happy and in his element.

If you are lucky enough to have your dad at home on Christmas Eve, give him a big hug and savor him. If you are a dad, get home as much as you can all through the year. Find your kids in their element, and savor them. They’re growing up quick — you can bet on that.

Merry Christmas, Dad. I hope the navel oranges in heaven are as good as the ones from Florida.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who livesi n Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Another Christmas tragedy appeared on the horizon with the arrival of our Christmas tree. I have often thought the holiday season would best begin if it didn’t start with this most terrifying event. I don’t believe in the recreational use of drugs but would condone occasional consumption prior to this annual ordeal.  

First comes the tree selection. Living in an area where firs are grown commercially, one would think we were one up on people residing in Orlando or Pittsburgh. The opposite is true; more choices more problems. My wife, perfectionist that she is, won’t allow anything but a flawlessly shaped cone to enter the house. No holes, extra branches, twisted limbs or a trunk that is anything but 180 degrees vertical. I have finally learned how to avoid this particular problem. I have a best friend deliver one from his Christmas tree farm. She can’t argue with him.   

If choosing the right fir can make me reach for nitroglycerin, putting the chosen one in the stand will be the major contributing factor to my fourth bypass surgery. Christmas tree stands are much like ex-wives; they cost too much, never work, can’t do what you want them to, and never cease taking delight in seeing a grown man cry. My fondest dream is the creation of a virtual Christmas tree. One I can decorate on my computer and then laser it into the appropriate place.  

That’s another major headache — where to put the smelly, needle-dropping mess. Why don’t architects design houses that a tree will fit into? If you haven’t gone to the liquor cabinet by now, the next operation will guarantee the need for a double — putting on the lights.  

I have often wondered whose idea it was to use lights. I think it was some feminist group who love to see grown men grovel and cry. The real idiots are those men who try to use last year’s lights. I am convinced that a light grinch exists who goes from house to house beginning the day after Christmas. The same Grinch who makes fruit cakes. Somehow (s)he sneaks into basements and quietly tangles strands of lights which were carefully rolled up and, to add insult to injury, steals one bulb from each strand. Of course the man who buys new ones is no better off. I am convinced that light strands are boxed by inebriated Italian cooks. Assuming that you have them properly aligned, it is best to test them. Can you remember any time five strands of lights actually worked simultaneously?  

By now a sane person has finished off most of a fifth. The dog is hiding under the neighbor’s house, the kids are calling 911 and your wife is thinking her mother was right when she suggested computer dating or a nunnery instead of accepting your marriage proposal. About this time I usually think of converting to one of the stricter Islamic religions in hopes that it bans all such splash and glitter in its most important religious event*. Realizing that most such faiths forbid the use of alcohol I continue my rock-rolling task and commence placing the lights on the green ogre.  

Several theories exist which propound the politically correct way to string the tree. A few of the more popular ones are top down, bottom up, vertical rows, in and out and of course my favorite, helter skelter. Whichever method you choose will always result in the same problem. The last plug is on the opposite side of the tree from the electric receptacle and you don’t have another extension cord. No problem. We just move the tree from its architecturally incorrect place. Success seems just over the horizon until the lights are joyously plugged in by your youngest. Someone bought those infernal blinking lights! Time for another double.  

By now most men have retired to the opposite side of the room, taken up the fetal position and started sucking their thumbs. For the few that have made it beyond this far comes the glorious hanging of balls.  Another of nature’s great mysteries presents itself. Where did all the hangars go that you so carefully packed each ball with just 51 weeks before? It may be a genetically deformed version of the light grinch, but I truly believe that this phenomenon is something akin to the Bermuda Triangle. Enough of Christmas tree balls. They are a novel for another time. Let it be said that everything from a golf shoe to a Taco Bell Chihuahua is hung from our fir. Now the bottle is empty and a second cracked open.

Just three more tasks: tinsel, star and tree skirt. As many theories abound concerning appropriate tinsel hanging as light placement. Once again you have the single strand placement advocates, the several at a time underhand toss people, and the two-handed glob throwing radicals. Of course one has to consider whether to implement the “little is better theory” or the “more the merrier plan.” No matter what the choice, one can be assured most of this rejected aluminum foil will end up in the floor and will be around when the Easter bunny comes. Hmm. I had never thought how much tinsel looks like that colored stuff put in Easter baskets.   

The crowning moment has now come; the star. Some prefer a lighted version, but by now my tree is violating all fire codes so the plain star is chosen. If everything has proceeded accordingly I have had about two shots of the second bottle and am convinced that I can stand one legged on a barstool while holding the wall and perfectly place the real symbol of Christmas. I won’t bore you with the details. As I stumble to my feet and pick up the chair, my wife dryly comments that the tree looks cute lying on the floor and now she won’t have to worry about the kids pulling it over on themselves.   

After carefully wiring the tree to the mantle, an overhead light and a screw placed in the wall, my wife puts the skirt under the tree. Tree skirts serve no apparent function other than to create havoc every time you need to water the damn tree. I believe mothers hand these down to daughters as a curse.  My thinking is that old white sheets are best as long as they haven’t been used too often as dropcloths for home painting projects.  (Another story for another time.)

Eureka! A skirt! If only someone had told me that Christmas trees are female. Next year will be different. First thing I’m going to do is burn my friend’s Christmas tree farm.  

•••

Post Script. A typical Monday at the office has just ended. I sit on the couch with a glass of wine, turn on my computer and double click the AOL button. She is running around the house trying to ready for our Christmas party just three days away. Supper is in the crockpot. Her best friend drops in for a quick drink. Of course a tree viewing is in order. From across the room I watch as lights are plugged in. A blood curdling yell disgorges from my wife’s mouth: “The lights won’t work.”   

These words immediately send cold chills running down my spine. I believe that no other phrase could evoke the fear and trepidation that I begin to experience. “Please God, let the lights come on.” Genesis and the story of the first days of the world came to mind. Once again I quietly and fervently pray that He would let there be light. Alas, such was not the case.

As fate would have it, my wife’s younger sister arrives on the scene. You know her. The one who works at the Christmas shop. She of Christmas tree knowledge and the patience of Job. (I often wonder if they are truly of the same gene pool.) A long explanation of never putting more than three strands on one switch, never mixing and matching different lights and, of all things, how fuses work is mockingly given and contritely received.  

I have always considered myself a quick learner. It only takes driving a screwdriver into two knuckles to decide that a $3.95 set of lights was not worth the effort to repair. The unthinkable replacement of the dead set is a better fate. Into the tree I go. I tell my wife where my last will and testament is and that I have signed a donor card and a living will.

Three minutes later, with evergreen scratches covering my arms, needles in my mouth and sap covering my hands, I escape the tree with the dead strand. No rest for the weary though. A quick survey of the tree by my lovely is made. From out of no where she produces the dreaded replacement set.  Reminding her of my burial requests I dive back into the forest.    

I have never believed in good or bad fortune, but somehow my lucky light must have been shining on this tree. In less than two minutes I replace the darkened set and am sitting on the floor with plug in hand. I think to myself, maybe I shouldn’t press my luck. What if I plug it in and nothing but a black hole appears? Naw, it’s my lucky day. Quickly I insert the plug into the receptacle. Yes!! I high five the dog and the kids. God is undeservedly smiling on me. Evidently he has decided I have been punished enough for one Christmas.  

As I sit on the couch pounding out this story on my Toshiba lap top I lift my humble head and tearfully stare across the living room floor. There stands the most beautiful tree in the whole world. My wife’s Christmas tree.

•••

Post post script. It is now two years since I revealed the terrible horrors you have just read. Once again I’m sitting on the couch three days before the “Big Xmas Party”.  Lucky me — I don’t have to wander into that terrible forest again. Most people wouldn’t have gone to the extremes I did to escape this punishment. How does back surgery sound? Yes sir it works wonders.  Not suffering excruciating back pain every time you breathe is only secondary. The good news is your surgeon repeatedly telling you in front of the lovely:   “ FOR THE NEXT MONTH DON’T LIFT ANYTHING HEAVIER THAN FIVE POUNDS, DON’T BEND, TWIST OR TURN AND USE PAIN MEDICATION AS NEEDED.”

Scheduling this surgery did take some doing. Most patients have to wait six weeks to see a doctor and then another month to get scheduled. Christmas had slipped up on me and I didn’t have this long to wait. It so happens my brother lives next door to this neurosurgeon who plays bad poker and I guess you can figure out the rest. One month after the MRI revealed a herniated disc, I was on the operating table. Some of you might think I went to extremes to avoid the tree. You haven’t heard anything yet. Next year I’m thinking of confessing to being Jack the Ripper.

It is 2011 some 12 years after the first episode in this saga and the merriest of all seasons is upon us — like a white sheet pulled over a corpse. Age does have its benefits. My lovely hasn’t required that hallowed of all hallowed icons, THE CHRISTMAS TREE, for almost 5 years. Of course each Xmas party we go to brings the sardonic “I know we don’t need a tree, but doesn’t that one look beautiful?” Saturday night almost brought a good marriage to a bad end. Fate would have it that we were invited to my friend’s house who supplied the trees for many years. A chef’s dinner was being served — at least I would die on a full stomach. We had barely pulled into the drive on Scenic Circle when it began — “Whee, look at the trees — and one is on the outside porch!” I mumbled under my breath, “if I owned a tree farm we would have one on the porch too, but I am a lawyer who has had three open heart surgeries, four stents, three hip replacements, two back surgeries, gall bladder surgery, two knee surgeries and a partridge in a damned old Christmas tree.” Fortunately the divine one didn’t hear me. The night went well enough — a good merlot makes all things merrier and Carolina won a close basketball game. As we drove down the street towards our treeless home the bell rang on the first round of a marriage ending argument — “we could move the couch, tie up the dog, move the TV and put up a little tree.” I reached for the nitro hoping that this would stop the pain — not in my chest, but in my head. She immediately fell for the ruse.  “Honey, I knew it would be too much for you. We can do without again.” And so another Christmas will pass without the need of a divorce attorney and sans tree.  

(Gavin Brown is an attorney and mayor of Waynesville.)

If you haven’t covered your greens yet — and I’m among those who have not — it’s time. We’ve been favored by a long, relatively warm fall, but these 20 degrees nights cause wear and tear on our mustard, collards, turnips and whatever else currently survives outside. A telephone call this past weekend from a friend in search of row cover (I had some extra to spare) served as a reminder. Cover those greens, and you’ll get a lot more out of them than you would otherwise. A few nights below 20 degrees without protection, and they’ll disappear on us.

•••

The last time I wrote about using row cover I received an email from a nice fellow, I think from up in the Cashiers area, who thanked me for my suggestion to use it liberally and often in the winter garden. “But what, exactly, is row cover?” he asked ever so politely after delivering several effusive compliments about my writing style intended as balm to remove any possible sting from the question. I felt more than a little embarrassed by my failure to actually define what I was writing about. As my new friend Harold is prone to ask, don’t they teach that in Journalism 101?

Harold, I’m discovering, likes to read my articles and columns and, in a jolly way, note any little journalistic errors I’ve committed that week. Everybody needs a Harold in their life; I’m glad I found mine. Harold keeps me humble and amused. But anyway, back to row cover.

So this is for the email writer and Harold: Row cover, my friends, is a type of material placed over crops to provide protection from either insects or, in the winter, cold. Or, to be more precise, to protect plants from the damaging and drying of winds — the chill and thaw and chill and thaw cycles destroy garden greens and other vegetables much more quickly than low temperatures ever will. I use a product called Agribon 19, which in theory provides a mere 4 degrees of frost protection. But in reality, that thin barrier also breaks the wind — and that’s where the vegetables get the truly needed protection. Agribon is readily available through almost any garden supply company.

•••

I also haven’t planted either my garlic or flower bulbs. It isn’t too late, so if your neglected bulbs are in the corner of the garage as mine still are, pick a day soon and go ahead and plant them. I’ve heard of people actually not getting their garlic in until January. Now that is pushing the garlic growing season a bit far, but those farmers say the crop is usually productive even with the planting so amazingly delayed. But if the ground freezes and stays frozen, which can happen anytime now, we’ll all be out of luck, period. So get those garlic and bulbs in — I plan to.

•••

I’ve planted carrots the week before Christmas in previous years with success. Those sown then will germinate one warm day and simply sit there, seemingly without much growth, until daylight hours lengthen. Then the carrots rapidly grow, giving the early bird gardener an early bed of carrots, indeed. The trick is to double cover the carrots after planting the seed. You can plant this bed anytime from now through whenever — to me, this early carrot planting marks the beginning of the new garden season.

•••

And speaking of new garden seasons, this is a fine time to get your garden soil tested through the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. The lab folks can get to it much faster right now than will be the case in the spring, giving you the jump on amending it as necessary. I have not actually ever followed this advice and tested my soil early, but it’s good advice nonetheless, and I’ve enjoyed intoning it for others’ benefit in an ever-so-wise gardener’s voice.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

For Newt Gingrich to have floated to the top of the Republican presidential slough tells what a dismal swamp it is. As most of the other alternatives to Mitt Romney have turned out to be dim bulbs, the former House Speaker may look bright by comparison. But the appearance of his brilliance blinds people to his malignant ambition, demagoguery, opportunism, and deeply flawed character.

Former Rep. Kenneth A. “Buddy” MacKay Jr. of Florida, who served six years in the U.S. House of Representatives with Gingrich, considers him “the most amoral man I ever met.” During his nearly three decades in public life, I never heard MacKay disparage the character of anyone else.

Many Republican leaders share Democrat MacKay’s aversion. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma says Gingrich lacks “the character traits necessary to a great president.” Conservative columnist George Will denounced Gingrich’s “vanity and rapacity.” David Brooks wrote in The New York Times that Gingrich “has every negative character trait that conservatives associate with 1960s excess: narcissism, self-righteousness, self-indulgence and intemperance.”

Gingrich’s serial adultery — which he now conveniently claims to repent — is not the half of it. He’s also a serial hypocrite. He hounded Rep. Jim Wright out of the Speakership and out of the Congress for an unethical book deal but then snared one of his own, for $4.5-million, that he was forced to return. The Ethics Committee brought other charges and the House reprimanded him by a vote of 395 to 28.

After impeaching President Clinton for a sexual affair with a staffer, Gingrich admitted to the same thing. More recently, he denounced the lending agency Freddie Mac but took $1.6-million for giving the firm “strategic advice,” a euphemism for insider lobbying and influence peddling. He once favored the individual health insurance mandate that he now decries.

Gingrich exudes contempt for the Constitution and the separation of powers. His threats to ignore Supreme Court decisions he does not like and to encourage Congress to subpoena judges to explain their opinions are the campaign planks of a would-be dictator.

In Congress, Gingrich was chiefly responsible for degrading American politics from civil discourse to civil war. That’s how he forced out the previous Republican leader, the very decent Bob Michel of Illinois, and set out to destroy the Democratic opposition (the contagion spread nationwide, not excepting North Carolina). Anyone who purports to deplore Washington as it has become and then votes for the person who made it so will be no less a hypocrite than Gingrich himself.

(Dyckman a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Time who lives part of the year in Waynesville. His books on Florida political history include Reubin O’D. Askew and the Golden Age of Florida Politics; His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins; and A Most Disorderly Court: Scandal and Reform in the Florida Judiciary. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

I normally veer from airing my opinion as a columnist in the editorial pages on issues that I cover as a news writer in the news pages for The Smoky Mountain News.

In my world, and in the worlds of most respectable reporters and editors, news is news and opinion — well, the less said about that the better. It’s easier to pretend that we were born into this world devoid of any such thing (opinion? what’s that? never heard of it) than to try and explain the more accurate, but deeply complex, truth. That yes, of course, we news gatherers do have opinions about the stories we cover.

We are human; humans have opinions.

But, as the wise judge instructs the jury, our job isn’t to be devoid of opinions: that’s impossible. Our job, whether jury or news gatherer, is to set those opinions aside. For the jury, the goal is to render a verdict in accordance with law; for reporters, the goal is to report stories based on facts.

All that said, and I now want to comment in this column on two recent news topics I’ve covered as a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News.

One is Swain County High School’s successful capture of its eighth state football championship. As a 1984 graduate of that fine institution, and as a former Maroon Devils marching band member who sat in the stands and froze her rear end off year after year during numerous championship runs, I can’t help but give a shout-out to the school. Go Maroon Devils!

(And for the record, I’d like everyone to note that I do know how to use an apostrophe correctly. My headline to the contrary last week, a single Devil most certainly did not play all those football games this season.

In an “oh, oops” moment, the apostrophe wondered away from its rightful place in the headline — Devils’ — to inside the “s,” hence the embarrassing, and suddenly singular, “Devil’s.” Hey, there’s no doubt the football team is amazing, but it is made up of many devils, not simply one devil.)

Winning a state championship is a big deal. And I’ll tell you what’s an even bigger deal in my book — that Swain County did it with Coach Sam Pattillo placing such a decided emphasis on academics.

Earlier this year, former staff writer Colby Dunn (who, in a moment of insanity, accepted a job in Holland as an au pair. I kid you not, she’s in that fine country at this moment learning to speak Dutch and shepherding about two towheaded Dutch children) wrote a terrific story about the Swain football team’s reading program.

Pattillo teamed with English department head Dawn Gilchrist-Young, both fine products of Swain County High School — I’m certain neither of them would put an apostrophe on the wrong side of the “s” — in developing the program. Each summer, team members read books intended to both capture football players’ interests and enhance these student athletes’ reading skills.

Pretty cool, that’s my opinion; and even cooler now that the Devils up and won a state championship. Perhaps other area schools could institute the same reading program.

Story No. 2: I wrote this week about “preppers,” or people getting ready for they don’t know what — the Rapture or the next blizzard, they’re not sure, but by golly they aren’t going to be caught unawares and unprepared.

This is a hard subject to strike the correct tone on.

It’s difficult frankly to write about preparedness without making the people involved sound like a bunch of nuts. But also to write an article that does not stray into the nutty side that does permeate this topic.

Anyone reading this column on an even occasional basis must realize that I’m a true believer in sustainable living. I like being able to do for myself, to know how to raise vegetables and animals, and to have adequate knowledge and skills to take care of me and mine. I’m currently living in an all-solar powered house, I have a garden, I take care of livestock, and I preserve food. Does this make me a nut? Well, OK, I may be a nut, but not because I believe in sustainability. That’s perhaps the sanest part of my personality.

Sustainability is fun, sustainability is friendly to this planet, and sustainability is smart.

A small, and to me at this point in my life, an amusing confession: Before I abstained from drinking, one of my biggest concerns when it comes to sustainability was being absolutely sure I would have an adequate supply of drinks even if the world as we know it ended. I learned to brew a variety of alcoholic beverages, from moonshine to wine. I, at least, wasn’t going to go without a drink even if the world’s supply lines of booze suddenly went dry.

I noticed brewing books being sold in Carolina Readiness Supply in Waynesville. This makes me suspect that I wasn’t the only person paddling that particular sustainability boat. I’ve also noticed in recent years that some seed catalogues have taken to offering tobacco seed (often amazingly touted as “organic,” as if that mattered when you smoke cigarettes) for the home grower.

I guess in the event of apocalypse the human race will go out with a smoke in one hand and a drink in the other. Even in these days as a committed nondrinker and nonsmoker, I admit that sounds like a pretty damn fine way to say goodbye.

Bottoms up, a puff of smoke and The End.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

When I turned 50 last week, I did not feel any older and certainly no wiser, but I did realize one thing I hadn’t really noticed before. I have now reached that age when people begin qualifying certain kinds of compliments, thus giving them a rather unappealing aftertaste. What should be sweet tastes instead like a spoonful of Pepto Bismol.

“Wow, you look pretty good for 50.”

“Fifty, huh? Well, you still get around pretty well.”

“Fifty and no heart attack yet? Not bad, big guy.”

You know you are getting on up there when people begin telling you that you look “much younger” than you actually are. Nobody says to a person turning 26, “Gee, Larry, you don’t look a day over 15.”

For one thing, it probably isn’t true. For another, and this is worse, it isn’t necessary. Celebrating your 26th birthday is grand. You’ve got all your hair. You can hike more than two miles without stopping to have a sandwich or a cigarette … or just a breather. You still get carded at Ingles, and you don’t care whether the wine you are buying will go with the lamb, because you’re not HAVING lamb. You’re having Taco Bell, which boasts a cuisine that matches well with a vast variety of wines, including the $3 bottle you just purchased. You get hangovers, but they last 12 seconds.

You have the nerve to dread turning 30. But not too much — it’s a LONG ways off, dude! You have a beanbag in your living room, and posters in your bedroom. Except for your parents and girlfriend — if you have one — no one expects much from you, since you’re only 26. You change jobs more often than you change your sheets, and no one thinks a thing about it. You get 12 phone messages a day and answer two of them, and it’s fine. You’ve maxed out three major credit cards, financing a trip to Cancun on one of them, and it’s all good. You’re 26. There’s plenty of time to be responsible later on.

When you turn 50, you get cards that make clever jokes about getting old, or not-so-clever jokes. You get sympathetic nods, or wide-eyed stares of feigned disbelief, or hearty slaps on the back. Damn, 50! Well, as one of my friends in the disbelieving camp put it, “you’ll always be 35 to me.”

See, that’s just the thing. I still feel 35 and think of myself as 35, until some 35-year-old doctor calls me “sir,” or I get a magazine from AARP along with my Rolling Stone in the day’s mail, or my wife reminds me that it is time to schedule that colonoscopy.

Sure, I can see some obvious signs of aging in the mirror every morning. My hair, what there is left of it, seems tinted with just a bit more silver each day, and the salt in my whiskers is making a hard charge these days to surpass the pepper, which is why I shave more than I once did. I can see a few more wrinkles around my eyes, and if I lay out of the gym for too long, my body revolts in the most violent and unseemly way, leaving me feeling about as firm and attractive as a bowl of cottage cheese. When I finally get up enough gumption to go back to the gym to resume working out, my body revolts again by aching for days. It hurts to wash my hair. It hurts to flip an omelette. It hurts to put the car in drive.

But there is a greater pain, still: the consequences of the desperate measures people will take to look 35 because they feel 35 or want to BE 35. For most men, such measures may include frequent trips to the tanning bed, hair plugs (or the more recent trend of shaving their heads, which I used to do), and various forms of overcompensation that are most likely associated with a paralyzing fear of sexual impotence. How about that new Harley Davidson? It sure is big and powerful, isn’t it?

Let the record reflect that I did not buy a motorcycle for my birthday. I celebrated at home with the family, and then went out for Japanese food. I took a nice warm bath in the Jacuzzi and put on a T-shirt and the new fuzzy pants my wife got me for my birthday. We put the kids to bed, danced in the living room for awhile to Billie Holiday, and then, well, let’s just put it this way. Not too shabby, considering I’m 50.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

I helped raise three turkeys this year. They were named Thanksgiving, Christmas and Extras. These turkeys were intended as the centerpieces for dinners on those festive occasions, plus one was targeted to fill a particular corner of the freezer.

There was trouble with this plan from the beginning.

Turkeys, I discovered to my dismay, are very personable. They took to greeting me happily with great joyful noises whenever I appeared in the barnyard. These shouts of delight were irrespective of whether I had food for them or not — they seemed to recognize me as an actual individual. And an amazingly wonderful, perfect individual at that, perhaps the most wonderful, perfect individual in the whole world, or maybe even the entire universe.

The turkeys’ effusive hellos, no matter how bad the day, always cheered me and provided nice boosts to my self-esteem.

Made a mistake in a newspaper article and wrote a correction that day? The turkeys didn’t care — I was AMAZING in their eyes. Got in a quarrel with a coworker and showed my … well, you know. In turkey land, all was forgiven — I was that WONDERFUL human being they loved beyond all others. Forgot an important appointment? No problem, the turkeys still shouted undying love when I, that PERFECT person they ADORED, came into eyesight.

This in total contrast to the chickens: Despite having helped raise them from tiny chicks to large hens or roosters, these ungrateful creatures still eye me untrustingly, like I’m a potential predator. They stay well out of reach and squawk hysterically when I draw near. I’m merely a food-dispensing machine, and a scary one at that, to the chickens.

And, as much as I enjoy the goats, sometimes I’m suspicious that is all I am to them, too — the person put on this earth to bring them food and water and to scratch places they can’t reach.

Not the turkeys: they visibly enjoyed having their heads petted. They would squat in front of me, making conversational noises while I rubbed their great ugly crowns, almost purring in happiness. I never knew that birds could enjoy affection and seek it out — but these three turkeys did just that.

I believe the turkeys came, via mail order, in April. Until Thanksgiving was almost upon us I successfully pretended to myself that I would be able to harvest them. (Harvest, you understand, means to chop the turkeys’ heads off, and pluck them or skin them, and generally ready them for the dinner table. “Harvest” is a nice euphemism for the word “murder.” Or for clear-cutting trees, for that matter — the word harvest has a sustainable sound that softens the actual deeds for the doers.)

At some point, just before Thanksgiving, I faced up to the fact that I wasn’t going to harvest these turkeys. That left three problems to solve:

One, we wouldn’t have a turkey for Thanksgiving. But that wasn’t too big a deal — we bought a turkey instead, and will probably do the same for Christmas.

Secondly, I don’t need and can’t afford turkey “pets” in the barnyard. Frankly, I wanted to keep them very badly, which leads directly into problem three — and this was a problem that couldn’t be solved without significant distress.

This particular breed of turkey was specifically selected, genetically, to gain weight quickly. This means the turkeys convert their feed to meat in a hyper-efficient manner. When you farm or homestead, heritage breeds are a nice concept, but the reality is the longer you feed an animal intended for the table, the more money you spend and the less you make. It is easy to end up on the losing end unless you opt for these newer, fast weight-gaining breeds.

Ironically enough, we hadn’t actually intended to get meat-specific bred turkeys. But the order was mixed up and our heritage turkeys went to someone else, a friend we’d placed an order with to save on shipping. By the time the situation was sorted out we were too attached to our individual turkeys to consider switching them.

Our turkeys, the meat-specific bred ones, were by Thanksgiving having increasing difficulties walking. Their bodies were too large for their legs. This meant I could keep them as pets, yes, but only at a great price to the turkeys. They would suffer, and one day soon, they likely wouldn’t be able to walk at all.

This left me with one single, unhappy solution. Since I couldn’t kill them myself, someone else would have to kill them. The three turkeys were given to friends in Balsam who raise and slaughter chickens and turkeys for a living. We carted them over there and said our goodbyes to the trio — Thanksgiving, Christmas and Extras — this past Saturday.

I know they planned to kill the turkeys the next day. I’ve not been able to block the realization that my turkeys are, by now, very dead.

There’s absolutely no doubt that the turkeys were killed in a humane and quick fashion. But dead is dead, and my hands are no freer of their blood than if I’d killed them and cooked one up for Thanksgiving — I just ate a turkey that I didn’t know on an individual basis, that’s all.

And by choosing to skirt the actual deed I took the cowardly way out.

So here’s what I got out of keeping turkeys — a whole heaping on my Thanksgiving plate of internal turmoil. Here’s hoping your experience this year was less dramatic than mine.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

One fall when I was 9 years old, just about the time WWII ended, the Jackson County Elementary School was visited by a truck loaded with magic and magicians — at least, it seemed that way to me. When we peeped through the window on the second floor, we saw a truck with an elaborate sign: THE CAROLINA PLAYMAKERS! That sign meant absolutely nothing to us, but the people who climbed out of it left us stunned. There were lots of bright colors, parasols, soldiers, women with wigs, some folks that appeared to be Oriental and a guy wearing an aviator’s helmet. Maybe it was a circus!

Within a short time, we were herded into our creaky old auditorium and our teachers began to check the attendance book calling our names out so that they echoed. Nobody had escaped; in fact, all of us were filled with curiosity. When Mr. Cope, our principal, announced that a troupe of actors and traveled from Chapel Hill to perform a play for us, we were even more perplexed since we knew nothing of a place called Chapel Hill, much less what a “troupe of actors” might be.

There was a lot of coming and going, and I sat with my best friend, Charlie Kay, listening to the thump and rumble behind the curtain. Ah, but then the music began; the curtain opened and we were astonished into silence for the next hour.

I’m sure that the majority of us had never seen a play and perhaps that is the primary reason for its effect on us. It was a dramatization of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, and we were transported from Sylva to some mystical village in the Himalayas (Shangri-La) where people wore huge coats and monks went about chanting. Gradually, we understood that the pilot was in love with this girl in a magnificent dress, and when the two walked together in the moonlight (yes, suddenly it was night on the stage!) and we learned that these people never died ... if they never left the village.

But, the pilot did leave, and in the final scene, he flew away. The beautiful girl stood on the stage and waved as her boyfriend flew away, the sound of his plane going from a great roar to a faint hum.

When the play was over, the Carolina Playmakers invited us on stage, where we were amazed to see that the set was painted cardboard. When I asked to see the plane, a stagehand laughed and pushed a piece of cardboard into an electric fan.  “ERRRRROOOOOMMMM!” it said.  That was the day I began to dream of magic and the art of making fantasies and dreams which could get up and walk around.

When I went to college, I learned how to build stage sets, hang lights and construct my own Shangri-La.  When I began teaching high school English, I took one-act plays to regional and state festivals where I saw my students not only win awards, but become young people who had learned to speak with confidence. Invariably, their experience with drama had a positive effect on their character.

Now, I come to the “real” purpose of describing the night a 9-year-old kid visited a cardboard Shangri-La. For some 40 years, drama and theater enjoyed a privileged position in North Carolina arts. North Carolina was praised for the quality of its theater and playwrights like Paul Green crafted plays that were admired by the rest of the country. Educators readily acknowledged that drama played a vital part in developing confidence. But now, something has changed.

We still have extravagant musicals and thriving summer stocks that “entertain” thousands of audiences. The majority of our small towns have active community theaters. However, for several years now, something has been quietly draining away. Perhaps this is only happening in my region. Is my experience unique? Is it not true that one-act drama festivals have disappeared?

Since I am a playwright, I am especially sensitive to the fact that grassroots theater seems to be endangered. More than a decade ago, I could go to any literary festival and find a covey of playwrights. Back then, I might even be asked to teach a workshop. When it comes time to hand out the accolades, there are glowing awards for novelists, poets, even essayists, but I haven’t seen the work of a dramatist acknowledged in a very long time.

A decade ago, although resources for playwrights were limited, I could still find a handful of organizations that promoted North Carolina playwrights and drama. They are gone now, although Google can still find a few of their abandoned websites floating somewhere in space.

What happened? Did the state of the economy eliminate theater as an art form? Certainly, North Carolina is still vitally alive in terms of the “other literary arts.” Novelists and poets are thriving. Universities and arts organizations continue to sponsor celebrations and book signings, but drama workshops and awards are missing. Why?

Maybe they are still out there and I am just “out of touch.” Or maybe a one-act play competition for high school students has been rendered an anachronism. It could be that today’s young people are content to watch from the audience. Perhaps they are all watching “Dancing With the Stars.”

Frankly, I had rather restore the magic that the Carolina Playmakers brought to my school some 60 years ago. I would like to see that dilapidated truck pull into a parking lot in Graham or Clay counties where a group of elementary kids watched, transfixed as the moon and stars over Shangri-La are carried inside. Would that old magic work now? Would the kids cut off their cell phones long enough to watch “Lost Horizon”?

Yeah, I think maybe they would. I would like to think that if we restored the event, they would come. Am I wrong?

(Gary Carden is writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Newspaper people are a special breed. As a type, these are individuals who tend toward the eccentric and are decidedly off-kilter; perhaps, dare I say it, are even slightly mad. They are ill suited for employment anywhere except at newspapers, or perhaps in a pinch, on a prison work crew.

Take The Smoky Mountain News gang in Waynesville. Now this is an odd bunch. The Smoky Mountain News people are odder even than Peggy, a woman I remember with great fondness from my years at The Franklin Press. Peggy had a take-no-prisoners outlook on life.

Peggy worked in layout for The Franklin Press. These were pre-computer days when newspapers were physically laid out by a now antique method known as “cut and paste.”

This was my first on-staff newspaper job. I wrote feature articles part-time and held a newly created position at the newspaper, optimistically dubbed “Quality Control,” to work out my remaining 20 hours a week.

Ken Hudgins, the publisher of The Franklin Press, was quite the wordsmith and something of a perfectionist. Ken’s manners were so gentle and kind it was difficult to recognize that he was a man ruled by a deep inner need for facts to be correct and words to be used properly. That’s a difficult need to have in the newspaper business, and one that resulted in this wonderful man suffering excruciating pain when our inevitably flawed, twice-a-week newspaper published.

I believe Ken dreamt of publishing the perfect newspaper. Just once, The Franklin Press would roll off the printing press and land on his desk free of blemishes. This dream newspaper would be absent embarrassing typos and factual errors, and no one would call and complain (or even worse, write a letter we were subsequently forced to print) about “pubic” instead of “public” meetings, or how we’d misidentified their loathsome children — again — in photo captions.

Ken searched high, low and in vain for an employee who would join him in this noble quest to create the perfect publication. Unable to find an actual individual, he instead settled on creating this new position of “Quality Control.” I suspect Ken hoped that by simply designating someone Quality Control they might rise to the grand title and fulfill his expectations.

Quality Control would equate to never printing corrections or letters critical of the paper, because nothing henceforth ever would be wrong. Ken, I believe, was convinced that Quality Control was the answer to life’s many woes.

Why I was hired as Quality Control I can’t imagine. My qualifications consisted of six months freelancing and of a couple decades of sleeping soundly through elementary, high school and university-level grammar courses.

My duties, Ken explained chippily during those first days when his glasses gleamed pink in color, were to place a pica stick across pages to ensure headlines were perfectly straight; and, when I spotted a misspelled word in an article, to use an X-Acto knife to cut out the offending letters and replace said letters with the correct ones.

It must have been evident early on that I was ill suited for a job so meticulous and grinding in nature. Ken endured six months or so of my ineptitude before, saddened but resigned, he moved me fulltime to writing. Ken eliminated Quality Control altogether, in sheer frustration, I suspect, at my total inability to come anywhere near his vision of what that person (something along the lines of the famous fact checkers with The New Yorker magazine) would do for The Franklin Press.

But, I mustn’t wander. Back to Peggy, who helped in layout. Peggy, I remember, became incensed at the editor. I’ve forgotten now the exact cause, but I’m fairly certain that Scott was being a smart aleck, as Scott — may he rest in peace — so often was.

Peggy was a woman of few words, so on this day when her temper quickened, she didn’t think twice — she twirled about and threw her layout knife straight toward Scott. I remember his eyes growing large and round as he looked at the knife, now stuck quivering into the wood of the layout table perhaps an inch at most from his leg, and mere inches from some even more tender parts that I am sincerely convinced Peggy was aiming for.

But I wander within a digression. We were chatting about The Smoky Mountain News crew, which in their latest demonstration of eccentricity, last week pooled pennies together to buy a rat-like thing for the office. This is a hamster, or a gerbil, or something equally small that my cats would enjoy killing.

This rat, or gerbil or hamster or whatever, has been christened Scroto Baggins. It resides in a cage in the Waynesville office. Except for 20 minutes or so at a time, when Amanda the bookkeeper or Margaret the graphic designer places Scroto into a clear plastic round thing, and he runs about in it, rolling this ball onto one’s feet and over computer cords, and generally making a nuisance of himself or herself while Lila, who is supposed to be selling advertising to help support my writing habit, squeals how cute he or she is.

(No one’s quite sure of the little creature’s sexual identity, hence the gender bending. This confusion, frankly, isn’t that unusual in the newspaper business, either.)

Is it any wonder that the newspaper you hold in your hands is flawed and imperfect? In what other industry besides news, pray tell me, could this happen? Office rats aren’t found in doctors’ offices, restaurants or in finer retail stores; at least not rats that are loved on and named.

Picture this: Here we poor writers are, trying to create Great Literature for the masses while being attacked by a rat named Scroto. It’s enough to send one scurrying in search of Quality Control.

Or, short of that, a good rat trap.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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