I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions. But this weekend I decided to list five and work seriously toward accomplishing them by year’s end. The only resolution of mine worth sharing (unless you find personal self-improvement goals such as exercising regularly and eating more fruits and vegetables interesting) is the quirky one that made this very short list.
I’m going to write a mystery novel. Never mind I’ve yet to reveal any aptitude for fiction writing — quite the opposite is true, in fact. I’m a nonfiction writer to the very marrow of my bones.
I get nonfiction. After almost two decades of being lucky enough to earn my living as a professional writer, I’ve learned a few gee-whiz, golly-wow writing tricks. I’m not unlike the small-town magician who volunteers for a local library program, and, on a good day, convincingly pulls a rabbit out of her hat.
I enjoy playing with structure, and find it fun sometimes to use unusual, or at least unexpected, narrative voices. I get a kick out of tinkering with pacing. Or, to be truthful, I get a kick out of those things when I’ve devoted the hours needed to writing a really good article. When I’m feeling lazy or haven’t allowed adequate time, I rely on experience to just bang it out, which is what a former colleague and I used to bark at one another as deadlines neared and editors increased demands about getting the story NOW. “Bang it out” was our verbal spur to hurry up and get the work done.
In this case, familiarity has bred comfort. I know how to get the job done, and get an editor off my, well, let’s say case. Fiction, however, is another matter. Here I feel adrift at sea, unsure even how to make a beginning.
Where does one start when a girl’s fancy turns to fiction — with an idea, maybe? But once an idea is settled on (which I haven’t, yet, actually accomplished), how does said writer — me — turn that thought into a convincing story? How does one develop characters from thin air? What narrative voice to use?
This is all so intimidating I feel like going to bed and burying myself in a good mystery, one of my favorite forms of escape. I lean toward classic British mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio March (a New Zealander who set most of her work in merry England). But I also admire contemporary writers such as Martha Grimes and Ruth Rendell. And I like the late Dick Francis, who told the same good yarn over and over, just changing the names and plot a bit for each new novel produced. That was a man who found a good formula and milked it to fame and fortune, entertaining thousands along the way.
I read and enjoyed Anne Perry until I stumbled over the fact (widely publicized a few years ago, but missed by me) that she is an actual murderess, having helped bludgeon a friend’s mother to death in 1954. This icky fact intrudes whenever I try now to read one of her books. I like my murders and murderers imaginary, thank you very much. I’ve seen enough of the real stuff as a newspaper reporter to not enjoy actual suffering and pain.
As an aside, I admit to enjoying science-fiction fantasy. This embarrasses me because much of it, if not almost all, is appallingly written. You really have to scrounge to find readable sci-fi. Buying or checking out sci-fi fiction at the library requires true bravery on my part. I have to override the snob who resides inside. One cannot take life too seriously and walk through a bookstore or library carrying books that feature such lurid covers as these. They inevitably feature sword-wielding buxom girls and buff studs posing against a backdrop of dragons and castles. No self-respecting individual over the age of 15 should be seen anywhere near such books.
Which brings me back to trying to write fiction myself. I will certainly be less free with tossing literary criticisms about since I’m getting ready to try my hand at a mystery, that’s for certain. Something about the pot calling the kettle black comes to mind. And, what goes around comes around.
But having honestly faced my limitations, and they are indisputably vast, the truth remains. I have a yen, a yet unscratched itch that cries out for appeasing. So, what the heck — I’ll write a mystery. No matter how bad the finished product might be, I’m by golly planning, as my good friend Jon Ostendorff with the Citizen-Times would tell me if we still worked together (and does, to this day, tell me when I call him because I’m stuck on a story) to just shut up and bang it out.
One of my favorite annual events is set to take place Jan. 15. I share this information now because it takes time to mentally sort through a garden. Additionally, preparing a seed order often proves the highpoint of the gardener’s year. One should enjoy the experience for as much time as humanly possible before reality intervenes.
In my winter fancies, everything I sow germinates and grows on beautifully. Bugs never eat these plants. Early blight never comes and destroys my tomatoes. Just the right amount of rain falls, neither too much nor too little. Weeds don’t grow, voles and rabbits fail to chew, and I plant exactly what’s needed and no more. The harvest fairy comes along at precisely the exact moment she’s needed to pick the resulting bounty at the height of goodness, and she cans and freezes whatever the kitchen fairy hasn’t whipped up into lick-smacking, garden-to-table dishes.
While the dreams feel familiar, this year is actually proving a significantly different experience because I’m not planning out a market garden. Last January, I was ordering enough vegetable and flower seed to support sales at three weekly farmers markets. I’m studying the catalogs as always, but the order will be large enough to plant only a small space.
I confess to liking garden challenges, and enjoy setting yearly goals. This year, I plan to practice seed economy and true small-scale gardening.
Back to the seed order, the brainchild of my friends Ron and Cathy Arps, two superb small farmers who live and work in Sylva.
The group order will take place at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Jackson Street in Sylva from 9 a.m. until noon. You do not have to live in Jackson County to participate.
The seeds will be ordered from Fedco Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which Ron noted in a recent email are “two of the leading seed companies that specialize in vegetables that have been chosen for taste, such as heirloom tomatoes, as well as a selection of seeds that are organically grown and not genetically modified (GMO).”
Flower, herb and cover-crop seeds, as well as onion transplants and sweet potato slips, can be ordered.
Catalogues for both companies will be available at the event, and seasoned gardeners will be on hand to help talk beginners through the process. Better yet, take a little time and go online to www.fedcoseeds.com and www.johnnysseeds.com. Take a look at what’s available beforehand, and jot down any questions you might have. Bring the questions along when you place an order. Bring cash or a check, too — you’ll pay that same day. The seeds generally arrive two to three weeks later, and a pickup date and time is sent out.
Many wonderful things are accomplished through this group effort. Everyone qualifies for a 24 percent discount through Fedco, varieties can be ordered that aren’t available locally, and you’re helping small farmers also get that Fedco discount — and believe me, when one’s livelihood is tied to a garden, that’s a nice way to start off the farming year.
Additionally, people who like to grow things are, of course, there. I’ve always found people who garden and farm inordinately fascinating. They talk at great and discursive lengths about those very subjects I myself find endlessly interesting and entertaining, and they never grow bored when I talk about those subjects, too.
This is a good time of the year to order seeds and plant carrots.
That’s not a misprint: It’s an excellent time to plant carrots. Starting this week, if there’s a weather window allowing for it, go into the garden and pick a place for carrots. Pull a rake lightly across the selected bed, just enough to break up any heavy clods of dirt. Be mindful of not overworking the soil. The ground is very moist, more so now than at most times of the year.
(I’m going to wax philosophical here, so brace accordingly, or skip down to where I get back to the nitty-gritty of planting carrots in December or January.)
Good garden soil is a precious, wondrous thing. As such, it deserves your respect and careful tending. Generally speaking, the less the ground is worked, the better overall.
This holds true in the winter, when you barely work the soil at all. It holds true in the early spring, when the soil requires more amending and turning, but only just so and no more than that. And on through the gardener’s year, which in Western North Carolina can be for an incredible 12 months — if the gardener or farmer has enough energy, passion and willingness to experiment.
Gardening year-round does require paying acute attention to conditions as they really are, not as we might prefer them to be. And to developing, as commensurate experience is gained, what some might wrongly dub an intuitive feel. Don’t be deceived, or believe people at birth were given green thumbs or dark, black ones. Vegetable gardening is not an art — it’s a craft. Anyone with sufficient interest and the willingness to work hard can learn to garden. Or, for that matter, keep honeybees, raise livestock or write essays on a variety of riveting subjects such as these.
But I’m digressing within a digression. Let me find my way toward home (and planting those carrots) by noting I’m big on creating a partnership with your garden or farm. This approach is in stark contrast to how some gardeners seem to view gardening or vegetable farming. Each spring, these folks arm themselves as if for war with their tillers and tractors, synthetic fertilizers and lethal sprays. They start by pulverizing the soil. Next, they dump chemical fertilizer down as some sort of imaginary fertility insurance. The battle — and make no mistake about it, these are battles taking place within an overall war against the earth — is concluded when these gallant warriors have poisoned every living creature, great or small, helpful or harmful.
Gardeners and farmers of this ilk seem to believe they’ve forced the earth into doing their bidding. How very powerful, even godlike, that must feel. Unfortunately for them, this approach simply doesn’t work for long.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against tillers or tractors. Or using sprays and powders. Select methods that best match your garden and your philosophy. Hey, this is America after all.
Just, please, use powerful machinery and manmade chemicals mindfully and for thought-out reasons, not simply from habit, laziness or carelessness.
Kindness and gentleness in gardening is actually more practical: battling the earth simply doesn’t pay. The soil loses its vitality when overworked and over-fertilized. Indiscriminant poisoning kills good insects along with the bad (though one could rightfully argue there are no “bad” insects. In reality, even those insects with destructive habits serve as a useful signal we’ve gotten the balance out of whack. We might do better to consider why rather than reaching for a spray bottle).
Now, back to carrots. You’ve prepared a bed with due love and attention. Pull any weeds that might be successfully over-wintering. Using a hoe, or the handle of the rake, make furrows 4-6 inches apart. Sow the carrot seed with a heavy hand — no stinginess or frugality here, think joyful abundance as you plant.
This is because winter gardening is about increasing the odds. It’s a crapshoot, and seeding thickly substantially bolsters your chance of producing a lovely carrot crop that will wow your friends and send enemies cowering.
Cover the planted seed lightly with dirt, and pat it down. Put row cover such as Agribon 19 over the carrot bed. I use wire hoops to keep it suspended, but you could lay it down directly (though loosely so the plants have room to grow), and pin the cover along the sides using rocks. Row cover is simply a light fabric available through many garden centers, or you can order it from most seed companies. I’ve read of some thrifty souls using sheers for the same purpose.
It might take awhile, but the carrot seed will germinate. The little plants sit there, seemingly not growing at all, until the days get a bit longer.
On those nights it gets really cold — I’m talking, say, 17 degrees or lower — consider throwing a sheet or piece of plastic on top. Be sure, however, to remove the extra cover when conditions change for the better.
Don’t thin the plants until they are several inches tall, then thin to 1-2 inches apart. Come April or May, if all goes well, you’ll be eating carrots straight from the garden.
Sunday, 6 a.m.: Get out of bed, stagger downstairs and start grinding coffee beans. What’s that white sheen through the window? Oh goodness, it must have snowed overnight! I should have moved my car. Stupid weather forecasters — they said the snow wouldn’t come through until this afternoon. So much for dinner with friends in Franklin tonight … So much, too, for getting out of here before a significant warm-up takes place. Sorry, Scott. Bet you’ll be laying out the newspaper in Waynesville on Tuesday without me.
8 a.m.: Measure snow. Three inches, and more on the way, according to the National Weather Service. Eat breakfast — French toast drizzled with tasty wildflower honey harvested last summer from the bees. Two slices of bacon. More coffee.
8:30 a.m.: Well fortified, it’s time to head down the mountain … on foot. Put on long johns, jeans, long-john top, T-shirt, sweatshirt, coat, knit cap, gloves, thick wool socks and lined rubber boots. Stop at the shed for a bale of hay, put it on a sled, continue down the mountain. I know there is a crowd of hungry goats, sheep, chickens, two guard dogs and one orange barn cat named Jack at the barn down at the mountain’s base.
8:40 a.m. I’m absolutely burning up. I’m partway down the mountain. It is in the mid 30s, and I could comfortably exist in the arctic with the amount of clothing I’ve put on … what was I thinking? Take off the coat, the knit cap and the sweatshirt. Continue to the barn.
8:45 a.m.: Finally at the barn. Coax the seven goats into their respective stalls for feeding. The billy, Boo, and the wether, Brownie, are in one stall together. Peggy Sue and Delilah in another. Sochan and Chrysanthemum in a third. Thelma — the queen goat — still eats on the milking stand where she was milked until being dried off in November. Feed them.
9 a.m.: Carry water from the spring to the animals. The small pond where I’m dipping the water is gorgeous, unbelievabley clear and ringed about with snow. The water tank was drained last week because it needed cleaning, and there hasn’t been rainfall since. I’ll be carrying hot water down the mountain tomorrow with the freezing temperatures that are expected. Scatter cracked corn to the 30 or so chickens, all absolutely miserable in this snow — they don’t like getting their feet wet. Chickens aren’t that bright, and it doesn’t dawn on them to stay in the barn. Instead, they are standing forlornly in the yard. Feed the dogs, who unlike the chickens, think the snow is terrific. Feed the cat. Feed the sheep. Look at Sophie’s udder. We think she is pregnant, but her udder isn’t showing signs of filling out, which the veterinarian said to watch for. Maybe the ewe is simply really, really fat?
9:30 a.m.: Give each of the goats a penicillin shot. This must be done twice each day for five days. A virulent cold is running through the herd. Runny noses and coughs abound. The does are pregnant, and with the added stress of severe cold, it seemed wisest to start them on antibiotics. I worked as a vet tech during college, so I’ve given shots before, but goats are proving a lot more difficult than I anticipated. It’s really hard to find enough skin to pull out for the shot — maybe I can get a veterinarian to demonstrate if I ever get off the mountain again. The goats hate the shots. I don’t blame them. I feel bad for causing them pain.
10 a.m.: Carry four bales of straw from an unused shelter to the barn, and one farther down to the sheep shelter. Break them open and scatter them about. Fall once, landing on my back, while moving the straw bales. Wonder what would happen if I broke a bone or something. The cell phone is in the house, back on top of the mountain. If I slip in the snow and no one is around to hear me scream, do I really make a sound?
11 a.m.: Dust myself off, nothing broken. Start back up the mountain, hauling the sled behind. No reason to worry about not making it to the gym today — this is enough of a workout.
11:30 a.m. Cup of hot chocolate in front of a fire. Self-congratulations for splitting and stacking wood yesterday.
Noon on: Watch birds feeding. Chickadees, finches, pine siskins, titmice, male and female cardinals in the feeders. Towhees, winter wren and juncos on the ground — all happy until a large hawk perches in a tree nearby, triggering a mass exodus. Eat salad for lunch, made with the last head of Chinese cabbage from the garden. There are still plenty of other greens, though, all tucked away for now under double and triple layers of row cover.
2 p.m. Start on this column. All in all, not a bad day, though it will be time to head back down the mountain at 4 p.m. to feed, give medicine, and tuck the animals away for the night. I like winter, even the brutal days when the simplest tasks become difficult. It makes me feel very alive.
I have a confession to make. Underneath my tough, no-nonsense newspaperwoman exterior, I’m an individual who is ridden with guilt.
I can go inside myself at any given moment and touch on a multitude of reasons to justify feeling guilty. Having spoken rudely to someone, not believing I’ve put enough effort into a news article, terminal procrastination, not spending adequate time with my cats — anything and everything will do.
This, for me, is normal. And because I’m accustomed to me, life is familiar if not always comfortable. That’s not to say I don’t welcome lightening the load. So I’m happy to note one longstanding issue, where my crime was real and my guilt justified, has been resolved.
I no longer reside in the bad-girl files of the Fontana Regional Library System. I wrote a check to the Jackson County Public Library for $178.65. It didn’t just make me feel better — head librarian Dottie Brunette was delighted. Even the other library employees seemed to enjoy the event, a celebratory moment in an otherwise dull day, I guess.
At a recent dinner party, Dottie had flatly refused a request to expunge my record. I wanted my own library card after relying on borrowed ones for 15 years. Jackson County is building a beautiful new library. When it opens, I want to march in and check out books using my real name.
That’s what friends are for, I reasoned before asking Dottie. To undertake small personal favors for each other and, in this manner, make the difficult journey through life a bit gentler and easier. Kind of like the Freemasons or something, I thought. Except, of course, we don’t have secret decoder rings or handshakes or temples in which to gather.
Ha. I should have known better. Instead, Dottie delivered a l..o..n..g lecture on the library’s needs, its limited budget, the value of books in general, the noble role librarians play in the world, and so on. She capped it off with how she, Dottie, always pays her library fines and dammit, she’s the head librarian isn’t she? So the least I could do is pay my fines, too.
What I wanted to do by that point was have a big glass of wine or two, but because I’ve sworn off drinking for now I couldn’t do that. So I glared at Dottie instead. Then I realized she was (dammit) right. I needed to pay the fine.
Here is where I start looking good.
When I went to the library and asked Dottie exactly how much was owed, she informed me there were choices. In a pained voice, she admitted in a matter of months, because of the sheer length of time that had passed, my fines would erase automatically. Then I could get a library card — for free.
I hesitated. I thought long and hard about the uphill battle for funding the library system is facing during these tough economic times. And of the almost indescribably important part libraries have played in my life and heart.
My father drove the bookmobile at one time for Fontana Regional Library System, so I spent many days after school and during the summer at Marianna Black Library in Bryson City. When my mother worked in Sylva, my afternoons were occupied with reading books and magazines at the Jackson County Public Library. One of Dottie’s predecessors, Jeanette Newsome, and other women who worked there kept a close eye on me. I love them for that to this day.
When I lived in Cashiers and was dreaming of farming instead of writing, I found books at the library to sustain and inform me. Working at The Franklin Press and for the first time truly living on my own, I relied on the Macon County Public Library as a free source of reading material and entertainment.
Which is where I got into trouble — during a move in Franklin from one house to another, a box of library books and records disappeared. I have no idea what happened to them. At that time I was too poor to pay the fine. Later I just used the borrowed library cards and tried not to feel guilty.
Jackson County Library’s workers gave me a list of what exactly I was paying for: 11 books and a double-record album — opera arias, no less. In October 1995, I was reading Jim Chee mysteries, books on feature writing and photography, Spoon River anthology, and more.
I still enjoy Jim Chee mysteries and opera arias. Maybe now the library system can afford to replace the books and buy some CDs. And I can check them out. Using my very own — and very expensive — library card, thank you very much.
I don’t particularly remember U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, from our days growing up in Swain County. He is younger than I am by a few years, more my brother’s contemporary than mine.
His father delivered our mail. I don’t remember him at all. Most kids don’t pay attention to their postal carrier, and I was no exception.
I’ve never been an avid fan of the game of football, either. I did, however, take heed of Shuler’s career at the University of Tennessee and in the NFL. Somehow, because he was from Swain County, each time he threw or ran for a touchdown his athletic abilities seemed to reflect positively on us all. Though by then I wasn’t living in Western North Carolina, but downstate in Greensboro.
I remember feeling vaguely saddened when Shuler’s football career faltered and puttered out. For him, for me and for Swain County at large, our shared glory ended ignominiously with his foot injury.
There is something about a small school that makes you hyper-connect with others who attended the same school. Even now, in my mid 40s, I am the girl who went to Bryson City Elementary and Swain County High School, home of the Maroon Devils. And everyone who did the same, at about the same time, remains a classmate.
Since there were only 79 of us in my graduating class, you’d think it would be easy for me to remember who was there. It isn’t, though. I’m terrible at names and faces. This often proves embarrassing, because others don’t seem to have this problem. I’ll be in a grocery store and someone will say hello and use my nickname. Instantly I know they are from Swain County, and I start sorting through who they might be, hoping this wasn’t a particularly close high school friend I’ve inexplicably forgotten. But even if I can’t dredge up specific memories, the association of having been classmates creates bonds and commonalities.
Including, I must acknowledge, with Shuler, whom I’ve covered sporadically for various newspapers since he first ran for political office in 2006. I suspect he feels something along the same lines. There is a kinship, a shared history, and a common background. No matter that my politics and the congressman’s diverge sharply at points. Or that, as a journalist, my job is to monitor and report on how he performs his job representing us in Congress.
Still, all that said, I can’t help but admit to hoping Shuler does us proud.
The truth is the girl who went to Swain County High School doesn’t want Shuler to embarrass us on national television by saying something particularly stupid. As ridiculous as it seems, his mixing up North and South Korea, sounding like an illiterate hillbilly or doing a Dan Quayle and misspelling potato would reflect poorly on our schooling.
So I’m happy to note Shuler seems to have grown into his job, which is the subject of this week’s cover story. He is becoming an increasingly adept politician.
These days, when Shuler gives a speech, it no longer sounds like an approximation of the English language. There is actually a beginning, middle and an end, and even a message one can generally discern without undo straining.
Although I often don’t personally approve of the political stances he takes, I am happy Shuler is capable of articulating his beliefs. We might not have had debate classes at Swain County High School, or lessons in Latin. But all in all, we were given the tools to make of ourselves what we would. And Shuler, at least, is taking full advantage of every gift and tool he was given.
You can be excused for perhaps having overlooked the recent fireworks, but a minor war has erupted over one of this region’s favorite sons (or, not-favorite sons).
Pick your side.
Horace Kephart, the definitive writer of Western North Carolina history who set up a home of sorts in Swain County and gave us an accurate portrait of the mountaineer as he was then.
Or, Horace Kephart, who wasn’t even from this region. Who gave us a not very accurate portrait of the mountaineer of yore, and, if that isn’t enough to make you dislike him, was a good-for-nothing drunk who suffered a mental breakdown and stranded his family to boot.
I have an unusual, albeit somewhat shallow, interest in these matters. I live in WNC today because of Kephart. My family moved to the Bryson City area in the early 1970s because my parents fell in love with the region while Dad was doing research on Kephart. My father, George Ellison, wrote the introduction to Our Southern Highlanders when the University of Tennessee Press reissued it in 1976.
Other republications of Kephart’s books, and new information about the man himself, have been taking place these past few years. This has set the stage for a bunch of arguing about Kephart’s importance, the value of his books, and so on. My Dad hasn’t been part of that, best I can tell. He just keeps working on the material. And there’s been a lot of it to plow through, because the Kephart family is providing boxes and boxes of previously unexamined documents.
Here is the central argument of Kephart’s detractors, though they aren’t necessarily as direct about it as I am in this rephrasing: Kephart wasn’t from here. Thus, he had no right to portray the mountaineer at all. Only those born and bred in these hills, with roots that go back for generations, have a right or the ability to write about the people of these mountains. Everyone else is an outsider and doesn’t “get it.”
Phooey. I’m not from here, yet I maintain I’ve got a perfect right to portray whomever I want to, whenever I want to, how I want to, in whatever form I desire. Fiction, nonfiction, newspaper or magazine articles, columns, whatever interests me in a given moment as a writer. Who is going to stop me, pray tell? And if I do write about this region, what gives someone else the special insight to say my writing lacks value simply because I’m not born and bred of the hills?
I was born in Richmond, Va. If I abided by the underpinnings of this anti-Kephart argument, I would only write about people from Richmond (of which I know nothing, since we left there when I was six months old).
The argument is specious at best, and arrogant at worst. Let’s take it one step further, and the lack of logic becomes clear: Henry James wasn’t from Europe, so he shouldn’t have included Europeans in his novels. Ridiculous.
Joseph Conrad was Polish, so he shouldn’t have mastered English and written all those masterpieces, and about British people, for goodness’ sake.
Sue Hubbell, my current favorite nonfiction writer, hails from Michigan. Shouldn’t have written all those great books about living in the Missouri Ozarks, Sue.
Here’s the other angle of this anti-Kephart fervor. Not being from here, Kephart just didn’t understand — he overemphasized the moonshining and illicit behavior, and underemphasized the refined dignities of the mountain people.
Maybe. Maybe not. That’s the neato thing about being a writer. You get to emphasize whatever interests you. And Kephart was very interested in moonshine. How it was made, and how it tasted. He spent a lot of time sampling the local offerings, and clearly became something of a connoisseur.
Additionally, if we are going to condemn every drunk who was a writer, say farewell to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and plenty of others who found their muses in the dregs of wine cups and beer bottles. Kephart apparently often found his floating around near the bottom of a moonshine jar. So what does that prove about the worth of his work? Not a thing.
He was probably a lousy father and husband, but again, what in the world does that have to do with the quality of his writing, or his portrayal of Southern Appalachia? Not much.
A good place to take in the this-side and that-side of the great Kephart debate is www.tuckreader.com, a valuable recent addition to the local news scene. Check out the battle of words (both are being ever-so-courteous) taking place between Jim Casada and Gary Carden, both fine regional writers born and raised in WNC. Jim is from Bryson City, Gary from Sylva.
Better yet, read Kephart’s books and make an independent determination of your own.
There is an interesting disconnect in how some people perceive my job and how I perceive my job. This was brought home to me recently while working on articles about efforts to revive Cullowhee.
Additionally, working on this week’s cover story about community journalism got me all fired up and excited. I remembered how much fun it was to work in Macon County as a cub reporter. Working on the cover story gave me real hope for the future of newspapers. Paper, computer screens, who cares how newspapers are published as long as we get to cover local events.
I do believe people who work for newspapers need to do a better job of (ahem) communicating. For professionally trained communicators, as a group we are simply terrible at telling our own story. We are equally bad at explaining why we do what we do and about how we put articles together. No wonder people believe there is a vast media conspiracy. In our reluctance or inability to communicate, we’ve allowed others to speak for us. And they’ve not been kind.
Here’s my attempt to take my own advice: I used the word “watchdog” in an article to describe a new group that, in my mind, is promising to do just that with Western Carolina University.
Robin Lang, the spokeswoman for the new group, said she was aware some people had reacted negatively to the word. But she did not react that way herself in conversations with me. Robin isn’t one to back down when she believes in something, and this is something she clearly feels strongly about.
As I mused on the discussions I was having with other folks, however, the answer to what was happening dawned on me. People in Cullowhee and Forest Hills are working hard to do something positive for their community. They don’t want some vagabond reporter to derail those efforts by upsetting the powers that be.
I don’t believe this is from a desire to oppress the press, but because they don’t want to alienate anybody. Particularly WCU. Though I’m not clear whom exactly they mean by that, or what they think will happen if someone there does get pissed off. It’s not like WCU can pack its bags and go setup shop someplace else. If they are worried about Chancellor John Bardo getting mad, so what if he does? He’s planning to retire next summer, anyway.
This led me to mull over how I approach newsgathering and writing. It doesn’t always match exactly with policies at the places I’ve worked, but I do try to work places that are, in the main, congenial to my viewpoint.
• I’m not covering events in an effort to influence them. I’m not devoid of opinion — journalists who say they don’t have opinions on issues are lying, to themselves and to you. Ask me what I think and I’ll probably tell you. Like a good jury, however, my inner judge demands I set my opinions aside and listen and report.
Let’s keep picking on Cullowhee revitalization for a moment. I sincerely hope efforts there work. In fact, I might even help plant flowers or something. But it’s not my job to make things work — or to dally with coverage so that it’s palatable to those in authority. If someone designated a group’s spokesperson speaks, acts and behaves like a watchdog, and I use the word watchdog in a follow-up article, well that’s how the cookie crumbles and I make no apologies. Pick a less forthright spokesperson next time if my accurate rendering is bothersome.
• I don’t use anonymous sources unless someone is in actual physical danger. The last time I relied on an anonymous source was about six years ago. I was reporting on sexual abuse in the state’s juvenile prison in Swannanoa. The boy I interviewed had been molested. He was in true physical danger if identified. Using anonymous sources in lesser cases, in my book at least, is lazy reporting. It might take longer and involve more effort, but you can generally get any story into print with identified sources. If you can’t get it on the record, that’s an indication the newspaper needs to review whether the story should be printed in the first place.
• I believe, with all my heart, in the fundamental importance of journalism. Journalists have a unique and vital role to play, particularly at the smallest newspapers. There is a tradeoff: at a mid-sized to large daily you are somewhat insulated from readers’ and newsmakers’ opinions regarding your work. The quick turnover of news — a daily newspaper simply doesn’t stay on a restaurant table for a week getting repeatedly read and scrutinized — and the very largeness of a daily newspaper’s organization makes it difficult for readers to recognize individual journalists.
That’s not the case here, or at The Franklin Press, The Sylva Herald, The Macon County News, the Crossroads Chronicle, or at any other community newspaper in the region. I can’t even slip into a grocery store in Sylva to buy bread without hearing someone’s take on that week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News.
I won’t lie. Sometimes this gets old, particularly when I’ve had a long day dealing with uncooperative sources, or when the words won’t come no matter how hard I glare at the computer screen. Or if I’ve made a particular egregious booboo, or if I’ve been trying to get to the gym all day to work out, and I just stopped for a minute at the grocery store and now I’m cornered with my back to Annie’s Bread display hearing about it, whatever it might be, and I’m watching the time tick away knowing I’m not going to get to work out because I’ve got to get home by a certain hour.
But, and this is the truth, I am also extraordinarily glad people feel free to speak their minds or email me about coverage, and I hope this column doesn’t give the opposite impression. The comments force me to assess what I’m doing, how I’m doing it and whom I am doing it to. This might not always be comfortable, because, bottom line, sometimes I’m wrong or misguided or I’ve screwed things up, but overall it is a fine thing.
We (listen up, my newspaper friends) need in turn to pay readers the respect of being equally engaged. And to understand that being objective and uninvolved doesn’t mean standing passively by and not telling our stories in turn. If we don’t speak, others will speak for us. Chances are, we aren’t going to like what they say.
Once upon a time, in a previous incarnation as a musician, I developed a routine that allowed me to focus and settle my nerves before performances.
I was a brass player — I played the euphonium. This is a lovely instrument that is pitched in the same range as the tenor voice, a cello or trombone. Unfortunately the instrument is relegated almost exclusively to wind ensembles and brass bands. When I realized teaching or playing in a military band didn’t hold particular appeal, I took up a much grubbier existence as a journalist; later, I added farmer.
My pre-performance ritual wasn’t complex. Helpful rituals never are, or they become an end instead of a means. Nor is a ritual useful if it evolves into what I think psychologists mean by “magical” thinking. Step on a crack; break your mother’s back — that kind of reasoning. Which, when taken to extremes, isn’t a game anymore. Magical thinking is obsessive and stressful.
Rituals, by comparison, are calming and soothing. Early on, I discovered doing the same tasks in the same sequence before going on stage settled me. The ritual I’d developed put me into a performing groove. I could feel my brain “click” into place.
I’d unzip the soft case, remove my horn with the right hand, pull it out and cradle the instrument in my left arm, and reach into a certain pocket where my mouthpiece was always kept. I’d take the mouthpiece out with my right hand, put it in the horn and give the mouthpiece a little turn so that it fit securely. I’d raise the horn toward my lips and take a deep breath, mentally picturing a column of air flowing down into my diaphragm, expanding my lower back.
I’d start my warm-up. The warm-up changed over the years. But the way I got to the warm-up became routine. It was my ritual.
I was thinking about all this in the barnyard this morning. My fingers were numb from cold. Ice-coated grass crunched under my boots. The water buckets had a coating of ice, too, that I knocked out so the animals could drink. To the southwest, the Balsam mountain range glowed plum-like in the morning sun.
I once read chores are important because they give a person reasons to get up in the morning. Feeding the livestock gives me reason to get up in the morning. And it has evolved into a ritual of sorts. My day clicks into a groove.
There are rituals inside of my ritual, and I’ve been trying to decipher them. I believe it goes something like this.
The animals are a single barnyard unit. Yet they also function in groups — goats, sheep, dogs and chickens. Additionally, each is an individual.
I interact with them as a unit, as groups and as individuals. Between us (among us?) we’ve developed seemingly unending patterns and rituals. As individuals, as groups, as a unit. While I am in the barnyard, I influence but do not fully stop the interactions also taking place among them — as individuals, as groups, and as a unit.
This morning, as usual, I opened the stalls and ensured the goats went to their respective places. I fed them pellets. I fed the two guard dogs, and carried hay and pellets down the hill to the sheep. I checked the sheep’s water supply, filling the basin with fresh water. Next, the billy goat and his neutered male companion got pellets, hay and water. I threw scratch to the chickens and fed the barn cat. When the does were finished eating their pellets, I opened the stalls and put hay in their rack.
Simple. But then, good rituals always are.
An unhappy reader this week took me to task for writing harsh words about my 17-year-old cat, Edgar, after the little jerk sank his one remaining fang in my wrist and I wrote about the experience.
That love bite — acquired while rescuing him from a tomcat — required me to take two different antibiotics for 10 days (that’s four pills a day, each big enough to gag a horse). And, additionally, cost me $226 for medical treatment, medicine and a probiotic that the physicians’ assistant (wrongly) assured me would prevent virulent, unending, burning diarrhea, triggered by the antibiotics.
“I feel very sorry for Edgar and feel he would have been better off euthanized as a kitten (so do I, right now) than to have spent his 17 years in a home where he was not wanted loved, enjoyed, (you don’t need that last comma there, by the way) or appreciated.
“His biting and clawing you while you were rescuing him from the tomcat was because he was frightened, agitated, and confused (the comma after ‘agitated’ should be stricken, too. Write a testy email, get a free grammar lesson — nice deal for you.
Wrong on comma usage and wrong on behavioral interpretations: that makes you wrong twice, by my count. I’ve lived with Edgar for 17 years and have special insight into his psyche. Edgar went after the tomcat because he believes he is still Billy Badass rather than a geriatric pussycat. He bit me because I ‘prevented’ him from, in his itty-bitty, teensy-weensy cat brain, beating the snot out of that tomcat, which is named Jack (as in, Jack the Ripper. Who weighs, I don’t know, 50 pounds or so?))
“And, as you are hoping, I too hope he will leave this earth soon so he will not have to spend too much more time with you (I second that sentiment … diarrhea nonstop for three days was insult on top of injury). At the age of 17, you can probably find a decent veterinarian who will humanely euthanize him (hell no, I’ll just shoot him — I’m broke now. Can’t afford to pay a veterinarian bill, but bullets are cheap. Of course, burlap bags are cheaper still. Could put him in a poke and throw him into the river … ) so that you will not have to bother with him any longer.
“Your article also proves that people place no value on something they do not pay for (someone gave me Edgar, as this astute reader notes. But, I’d argue I’ve done nothing but pay: veterinary bills, food, having his little balls clipped off when he was about one year old, yards and yards of litter, cat treats, toys, cat beds, etc).
“That is another example of why ‘free’ animals usually end up in less-than-desirable situations like poor Edgar did (poor Edgar, my foot — poor Quintin is more like it. I didn’t bite him, remember? He bit me.)
“Please have the good sense never to take another animal into your home. You very clearly are not a pet person.”
(Sorry, too late — In addition to Edgar, I got two other cats in my recent, um, let’s call it a divorce, shall we? I lost the two dogs, though, you’ll be happy to know, and six rabbits, 15 hens, 45 hives of bees, and a partridge in a pear tree (I made up that last bit). Flip of a coin and all that. Apparently it didn’t flip my way, did it?
Sheesh, that makes a total of three cats residing in my home. Which makes me a cat lady, doesn’t it?
(I was always afraid that, in the end, here’s how I’d end up — a creepy cat lady. One of those sad women who becomes the main feature of a newspaper article after the police come in response to neighbors’ complaints about odor. Then, the TV people read the article and show up, too. And, before I know it, I’m on ‘Hoarders,’ the A&E Television Networks program, and there are psychologists in my home trying to help me give up just one cat of the now 200 living there. ‘But, you see,’ I try to explain, ‘It all started with Edgar …’ Of course, 10 more years have passed, but Edgar is still alive, he is 27 now, the little bastard just won’t die, you see, he just won’t die …. Ahahahahah (me screaming here) and they have bound me in a straightjacket, and have hauled me off to Broughton mental hospital in Morganton, but they feel sorry for me and bring Edgar along, too, so at least I’ll have one of the 200 pussycats for comfort. There I am, for the rest of my life, sitting there drooling with Edgar on my lap the whole time, 10 more years have passed, he is 37 now, and we die the same day … and they bury us together so we won’t ever be apart.))
A question for you, dear reader: Were you born without a sense of humor, or did circumstances suck you dry as a lemon? So that you won’t continue to fret (or cast aspersions upon my head, or write me again), I admit to liking Edgar. Even loving him. He’s outlasted my human relationships. But, just because he’s a cat, Edgar doesn’t get a free pass to bite the hand that feeds him.