Right now, I’m taking a stand to make a start

Firmly resolute in my desire to set aside more time for my writing I decided not to have a garden this year. Typical of my fickle ways, I now have my largest garden plot ever. I’m terrible with guessing dimensions accurately, but I’d roughly estimate this new garden space is approaching a half-acre in size.

There is something intimidating about such a large blank canvas. I tremble much as Michelangelo must have when he first viewed the huge expanse of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I am paralyzed by indecision about what to plant first. It is late in the season to be starting. Should I simply focus on traditional summer garden fare or try to sneak in some spring crops such as lettuce and peas?

This deer-in-headlights reaction to emptiness, newness and expectations freeze me as a writer and person, too. As a general rule I have a terrible time starting new work and making beginnings. I have an equally difficult time letting go and moving on. I tend to overwork things, whether it is a column, story or garden. And I never say goodbye easily.

But returning to beginnings:

If I could view a blank page or an empty garden as wonderful promises instead of dreadful challenges things might go more easily in my life. But all the little self-pep talks in the world won’t budge the reality of my reactions when faced with an empty expanse. It shuts me down until I finally make a start and get going with the task at hand.

I suspect I’ll need to do in this garden what I’m forced to do as a writer: I simply sit at the keyboard and begin. I would guess that more than half the time I have no idea what I’m going to write before I start. It’s not “free” writing in the sense that I let my feelings flow onto the page. Somewhere in my head I suspect there are some ideas about what I want to communicate; I do usually have a rough idea of the topics I want to cover. For instance, with this column I knew I wanted to write about my new garden and that I wanted to discuss the irony of my plans not to garden at all this year. But even knowing what I wanted to discuss didn’t make starting a jot less painful or laborious.

Once I’ve finally gotten something on the page it’s generally reworked and changed multiple times. Sometimes my changes are for the better and sometimes not. Often I will expend much time tweaking and tweaking only to find myself, in the end, more or less where I began.

The garden will probably prove no different. I suspect I’ll just have to go to the garden with a hoe and a bunch of seeds and commence to planting and growing, guided by some inner part of myself that is always there and available once tapped. Otherwise winter will find me still leaning on a metaphorical and literal fence staring at this vast garden, uncertain of what to plant first, trapped again at the beginning of a beginning.

One big motivator is that I actually do have a couple of peach baskets filled with seed just begging to be planted. These are leftovers from when I farmed for a living a few years back. Seed well cared for is like money in the bank, it really doesn’t ever go bad: the best place to keep seed is in a freezer. This seed, however, is a little more hit and miss than that. It’s been in and out of various storage areas in a mirror of the vagaries of my life these past couple of years. I’ll probably have to conduct rough germination tests to see what’s viable and what’s not. Or, more likely, I’ll just seed extra thickly in the garden and figure that I’ll get good germination that way, or good enough germination that way, anyhow.

That’s similar to how I write columns, stories and poems.

Jackson Pollock dripped or poured paint onto the canvas in a style of action painting; I throw a bunch of words at the blank screen and then try to swirl them around to create a form. This is a process similar to a kid spelling words in a bowl of alphabet soup. I find the process a bit demented, and frankly would prefer a more crafted approach, but I’m beginning after so many years to despair that I’ll ever make meaningful changes to my writing, gardening and life processes.

Sometimes you have to just accept who you are; beginnings, I know very well indeed, are difficult places for me. But to get anywhere you have to make a start: somehow you do have to begin.

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

My critics just can’t get enough of me

I’m sitting here writing this column in the company of Suki, a 13-year-old Golden Retriever mix. Suki is not actually my dog but has proven very good dog company for writing nonetheless. Dogs aren’t picky and demanding, you see. Unlike some kinds of animals that we won’t mention until we absolutely must a few paragraphs from now.

There is a reason the word “faithful” is so often associated with dogs. Even in mythology we find Argos, the dog that recognized Odysseus after a 20-year absence. Odysseus finally makes his way home to Ithaca and discovers that Argos, previously lithe and strong, is now an old dog asleep on a pile of cow manure. That faithful animal musters up enough strength to drop his ears and wag his tail. He then dies.

Suki might not be an Argos, but in her own way she’s equally faithful. Good dogs always are.

Writers need audiences; Suki, I’ve found, is gratifyingly appreciative of even the least notable of my labors. Dogs such as Suki are quick to lend a sympathetic ear when a writer like myself needs to work aloud a particularly thorny problem. Dogs also tend to stay at one’s feet dutifully and lovingly, as Suki is doing, while the writer tends to her craft. This is totally unlike — and here we mention that other kind of animal — cats; which, in contrast to dogs, seem hell-bent on destroying the creative process.

Before I get fully onto writing about cats I need to talk about my writing processes a bit so you won’t think I’m just being fussy.

I’ve written news stories sitting in cars. I’ve written during meetings when my attention is divided between the story taking place and the one I’m writing. I’ve written breaking news stories in noisy news bureaus and in newsrooms with police scanners blaring and phones ringing. So please bear in mind that I’m not asking for an entire room of my own like some more delicate writers insist upon. I need nothing nearly as grand as that. I merely request just a little room, the tiniest and smallest of spaces, to think.

But even a smidgen of room, I’ve discovered, is simply asking too much if cats own the writer and the writer’s writing space.

I’ve found that cats, unlike dogs, derail the writing process. It’s not just what cats do physically; it’s their obvious attitude of disdain toward the creative process. They have no respect for the writer. And keep in mind that I have three of these beasts; this means my troubles are tripled.

One of my cats is geriatric, which should mean he’s too old at 18 to be a bother. But that isn’t the case at all. Edgar’s sole goal is to find the warmest and most comfortable place in the house to sleep, and he’s absolutely convinced that place is my lap. The entire time I’m trying to write I’m using one hand to fend off Edgar from climbing up on me, with him all the while whining piteously as if I’m torturing the poor old beast. I am here to attest to you that it is virtually impossible to create great art one handed.

The other two, Agatha and Tuppence (if you notice a mystery novel theme here you would be correct), generally never miss a chance to sit on top of the computer keyboard when I get up for a drink of water. This adds hieroglyphics into the manuscript that confuse me until I figure out one of these cats has paid a visit. Even worse for me and happier for them they occasionally manage to delete hours of work with a mere touchdown of a cat butt.

Agatha is my most stomach-sensitive of the three. She once managed to puke out a hairball on the keyboard while I took care of a personal need in the bathroom. I was truly offended. I was left to interpret her gift as an indictment of my overall writing abilities and writing style, plus I had to clean the mess up and sanitize my keyboard.

On occasion Agatha and Tuppence decide to vie with Edgar for the right to sit on my lap. It is also extremely difficult to create art when three cats are hissing, swatting and caterwauling in the small space that we — me and these three demons — call home.

But as I write this column, ensconced today in someone else’s house, Suki the dog is sleeping serenely at my feet. She waits only to hear me speak her name to instantly bound up and hear me expound on the craft of writing. Her tail I know would wag appreciatively as I talked. And I can picture her big brown eyes intensely anticipating the likelihood I’ll say something of genius at any moment.

Anyone in the market for three cats?

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

Alternating between joy and gloom, grasshopper and ant

Spring weather like we’ve been experiencing makes clear that we live in a world essentially comprised of two kinds of people.

There are those who bask in the sun and who glory in the profusion of flower blooms; these are our don’t-plan-for-the-future grasshoppers. Then we have our ever-grimly marching ants, those that live among us who maintain a killing freeze is certain to blacken and decimate this world of beauty. The ants are joy killers.

I’ve been both a grasshopper and an ant during different life stages.

These days I’m much more likely to manifest as a grasshopper and to gleefully cut daffodils and forsythia branches for the vase on my kitchen table. I give little thought about anything except my enjoyment in the beauty of these flowers. But goodness knows I’ve been a little ant during certain periods of my life. Quintin the fun-destroyer going about muttering dark prophesies about the future and secretly hoping that the irritating grasshoppers in my life shortly discover the bottom side of a shoe — squish, that’ll teach ‘em to enjoy a beautiful spring!

What I’ve not succeeded in mastering is the middle way, of being what we’ll dub an anthopper. That’s what I truly aspire to be. But combining the best qualities of these two insects, the grasshopper and the ant to create the newly fabled anthopper, is difficult given my all or nothing approach to life.

An anthopper, I think, would enjoy the cut flowers, the sun, the profusion of bloom, but would ensure she has protective covering for the garden nearby. An anthopper wouldn’t get suckered by the garden centers into buying annuals this early … though I did just that this past weekend.

An anthopper wouldn’t ruin others’ enjoyment of this beauty with augurs of toil and trouble, strife and destruction, of certain impending looming horrible excruciating doom — either via a late freeze or upcoming summer discomfort. I’ve heard some of these ants assert, completely unscientifically and based on nothing except that it sounds terrible and frightening, that a warm spring foretells a blazingly hot summer. Which, even if these horrors are actually true, doesn’t change this moment’s reality: We are enjoying one of our most lovely springs in recent memory.


An anthopper story.

Once upon a time there was a grasshopper. The grasshopper fancied herself something of an operatic singer, and enjoyed singing, over and over, “Musetta’s Waltz” from Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

Meanwhile, an ant was hard at work collecting foodstuffs. The ant was certain the endtime was near, that an apocalyptic finale to the world was soon to come. She was equally sure that she’d be spared. So the ant spent a lot of time reading about self-sufficiency and practicing frugal ways.

It was very distracting to the ant to hear “Musetta’s Waltz” sung over and over again. Truth be told, the ant never had liked Puccini, and particularly detested “La Boheme,” and to top it off “Musetta’s Waltz” is unseemly and risqué and is an entirely inappropriate selection to be singing when everyone except that damned grasshopper knew perfectly well the world was going to hell.

So the grasshopper sang and the ant labored, hour after hour and day after day, under the beautiful sunlight of spring, summer and early fall. The ant’s hill, which was made up of dozens of tunnels leading to scores of storage rooms, was filled with dried and canned foods. The grasshopper barely even bothered with shelter — she simply went to sleep each night under a plant frond, something large enough to protect her from the dew, and ate the nectar from flowers during the day. Occasionally the grasshopper would consider putting back some food for the upcoming winter, but then she’d get caught up all over again in singing the waltz, and the thought would disappear like the morning fog when the sun rose.

The days grew noticeably shorter, and the night darkness rolled in earlier each evening. The ant was happy about this. ‘That’ll teach the grasshopper,’ she thought to herself grimly. ‘You just wait.’

One day the grasshopper awoke to a heavy killing frost. Her wings were stiff and cold. The grasshopper soon gave up attempts to sing. It felt like the words were frozen in her throat.

Meanwhile, the ant was watching. Her grand moment had come. The end of the world as the ant and grasshopper knew it had indeed arrived. The ant had six months worth of food to eat and a warm bed to lie in each night. As predicted, the grasshopper had nothing but death to anticipate.

But the ant felt a little uneasy — the grasshopper looked so sad, standing on a frosty grassblade rubbing her little hands together for warmth. And the world seemed so silent without the grasshopper’s trilling of “Musetta’s Waltz.”

Finally, almost against her will, the ant called out to the grasshopper and invited her into the shelter and to share her food. And thus was born the newly fabled anthopper, a being who can experience the middle way.

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

Hitting the trail not so easy in Jackson – at least not yet

Thanks to work obligations that have put me in Franklin several days at a time these last few weeks, I've had the opportunity in recent days to run, walk and stagger along that town's greenway.

I know I've plucked on this harp, honked this horn and beat on this drum a few times before, but I'd like to replay an oh-so-familiar tune again: greenways are cool. Greenways are great. Greenways, in fact, are just about the best legacy I can imagine elected officials creating to mark their times served in office.

I write this in the fervent hope that Jackson County will continue in its pursuit of something similar to what Macon County has created. Because if any community could use a greenway, it would be this one: I live just outside Sylva, and I'm here to tell you that this is a hard place to walk and run safely about. Or at least, to do that anywhere enjoyable — running beside the four-lane highway in the bike lanes is not my idea, or many other people's idea, of particularly enjoyable.

Swain County, my home turf, is unusually blessed in that the community has easy access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Go out to Deep Creek any morning and you'll find scores of local residents walking the 4.2-mile roundtrip loop. Those more intrepid souls easily can add harder terrain and distance — Indian Creek Falls, Noland Creek and more. When the lake is down, many residents opt to take their walks and runs along Fontana.

What Swain County lacks is an indoor recreation center. But that's a column for another day.

Haywood County has Lake Junaluska, a great gift to those in the community looking for somewhere safe and scenic to walk and run. Back when I worked everyday in Waynesville, I'd spend early morning hours working out at Lake Junaluska, adding distance and variety by trotting along the roads winding about within the Methodist community.

Sylva is much harder than these other communities for those seeking a place to exercise outside.

Occasionally I simply run and walk the roads in the community where I live. But one gets bored, or I get bored, with doing the same workout day in and day out.

There is a trail around Southwestern Community College. And though I appreciate its existence and on occasion avail myself of that trail, frankly SCC's path would challenge a mountain goat. Some days I'm just not up to that level of workout.

When there's time I drive to the end of Locust Creek Road, navigate through the trash pile at the bottom, and run those rough roads and paths for an hour or so. That's fairly enjoyable, but I do feel odd when I round turns and come face to face with pickup trucks and ATVs with local guys four-wheeling away the day. We just wave and go our respective ways, but I worry I'm in their way and that my presence adds a potential safety issue to their traditional mud-flinging fun.

Western Carolina University, I should certainly mention, is working on a five-mile long multi-use trail.

Keep in mind that volunteers are needed to help with trail construction there this spring and summer and with ongoing maintenance. To that end there's a trail-building workshop on campus Saturday, March 24. The workshop includes a required classroom session in The Cats Den in Brown Hall from 9 a.m. until noon led by a trail care crew from the International Mountain Bicycling Association, plus lunch and afternoon work on the trails. The training will prepare volunteers to build that five-mile trail at WCU for walkers, hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers this spring and summer.

I am concerned about mixing all users together. I used to run regularly at the region's most famous mountain bike destination, Tsali Recreation Area on the Swain-Graham county lines, which has four trails. The trails are open to hikers, bikers and riders on horseback, but on a strictly enforced rotating schedule. I would never have run on a trail with the mountain bikers on a heavy-use day — it would have been dangerous for them and me.

That said, I'm happy to see any trails being built in the area, and I'm sure WCU will work out any kinks in usage as problems, if any, play out.

But what I really hope is that Jackson County moves forward with acquiring the land needed to build a true greenway system. This community, of all of the communities in this region, could truly use one.

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

Pleasantly unearthing a few long-dormant memories

I unpacked my *euphonium recently — my first love was music; writing was a fallback position — and started fooling with it again. Despite not having held this horn more than just a few times in some two decades, I’m rediscovering deeply familiar patterns. I’ve also suddenly grasped that I’m less thinking and more instinctual than I might prefer to believe: Methods of doing and being have hardwired my brain.

I found myself holding and inserting the mouthpiece into the instrument in a particular manner — into the horn’s leadpipe, a quick turn to the right and click, the mouthpiece shank is locked safely into place. The euphonium I cradle in a certain way, a familiar, comforting feeling of completeness in my arms, like hugging a child or embracing a lover. The warm-up I used for so many years, too many years ago, I remember perfectly; though the sounds I’m producing are less than pleasing to my ear. I remember what a euphonium should sound like, and this isn’t it.

Patterns and habits dominate me much like my old cat has patterns and habits that dominate him. Edgar is physically beyond catching prey, but still he twitches into kill-it mode when birds land near his sunning spot on the porch. The grooves are deep. Say a Carolina wren lingers and Edgar hears the call of the wild, he forces himself up and starts a geriatric semblance of a stalk. Reality intervenes in the form of achy joints and molasses-like movements, and the old cat soon gives up the painful creeping in favor of comfortable snoozing.

Edgar can no more stop hunting prey than I can forget the warm-up I once sailed through as a mere introduction to hours and hours of daily practice. Today, the warm-up exhausts me, as the mere acts of twitching and attempting a stalk exhaust Edgar.

You could argue that Edgar’s response to birds is instinct and not habit, but I don’t think that is true, or at least not true in totality. I have another cat that “kills” socks. So I feel safe, sort of, in arguing that Edgar’s incessant bird stalking is in some part, at least, habit too.

Do something long enough, create an inner pattern, and it becomes part of you. For better or worse, we are what we do and do.  

Patterns are internal and external, of course. The word “patterns” speaks to habit, but more generally to repetition. Not surprisingly, once I started thinking about patterns, it seems as if I see them everywhere: patterns that drive my behavior and ones that occur in a much broader and more universal sense.

A week or so ago I was driving along the road paralleling the Tuckasegee River between Webster and Dillsboro. It was late afternoon. The sun backlit the trees and cast amazing shadows onto the blacktop. I found myself mesmerized and lost in those shadow trees, something incredibly beautiful that I normally would have driven over without appreciating.

Artists, I thought, notice such visual patterns as a matter of course. How wonderful that must be. I’m more likely to notice patterns in sound, both by ear and through the eye in my mind’s hearing, than I am visual repetition.

Spurred by the late author Frank Kermode’s wonderful book, Shakespeare’s Language, I recently reread “Hamlet” to enjoy the patterns our greatest playwright wrote. It was as if a whole new play with endlessly fascinating repetitions opened before me.

Kermode noted that Shakespeare played with hendiadys (hen-DYE-a-dees) throughout “Hamlet.” This is a literary device by which two words are linked by a conjunction to express a single idea. Or put another way, you express a single idea using two nouns instead of a noun and its qualifier. One modern example I found: “he came despite the rain and weather” rather than “he came despite the rainy weather.”

“The doubling devices give the verse its tune, or might perhaps be thought a sort of ground bass that sounds everywhere, sometimes faintly, and the few interruptions in it derive their power to surprise or amuse by the very absence of the now familiar tune,” Kermode wrote.

Examples from when Hamlet first sees the Ghost: “spirits of health, or goblin damn’d,” “airs from heaven, or blasts from hell,” “intents wicked, or charitable.”

Shakespeare was playing with his patterns. I suspect he did so with gleeful abandon (should I write, with glee and abandon?), caught in the endless possibilities of doubleness.

On a much more mundane, me-not-Shakespeare level, I found myself caught like that by those tree-shadow patterns. I just couldn’t quit seeing them after noticing them. And I haven’t quit thinking about them since.

*Euphonium: A member of the low brass family that is pitched the same as a cello or tenor voice. This is a lovely, versatile instrument that is sadly neglected in the U.S., with players relegated in this country to professional status only as members of military bands. At a certain point in my 20s, while busily auditioning for military bands in Washington, D.C., it dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t well suited for the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy or Coast Guard … way too much telling on my part, as it were.

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

When it’s all about the writing, I’m all in

Even after laboring for some two decades at various news publications I can’t say that I ever particularly considered myself “a writer.” A reporter, an investigative reporter, an editor, a newspaper administrator: those were some of the labels that fit comfortably, but not writer.

It seemed, I don’t know, too literary, sensitive and highbrow for the sort of work I was doing. Covering car wrecks one day, county meetings the next, the latest political scandal the day after that.

Frankly, many of the people I worked for at those newspapers didn’t particularly value good writing, anyway. They valued fast, accurate and clean reporting, preferably delivered on deadline without any lip. I became fairly adept at that style of journalism, and often revert to straight-up and stripped-down news writing when pressured or tired. Traditional news writing is a nice method of delivering information. But that’s all it does — deliver information.

There is much more that can be done than that. Writers tell stories. Writers, including those at newspapers, can use literary devices such as foreshadowing, scene setting and character development. Writers place facts into context. Writers give readers pleasure or enrage them, but they always keep them feeling and thinking.

Fortunately, The Smoky Mountain News allows, even encourages and demands, experimentation. And since experiments generally fail more than they succeed, that can be a risky proposition for those on high. It’s much easier and safer to squelch any little writerly tendencies reporters might show. Before long, and I speak from experience, reporters simply quit trying to make their news copy interesting. The result is a boring publication that delivers information and nothing else, certainly not reader enjoyment.

The Smoky Mountain News is truly unique in being a publication that so emphatically values writers and writing. In addition to letting on-staff writers such as myself experiment, the newspaper places a strong emphasis on highlighting “literary” writers and their works. Some of the region’s best write columns and book reviews for The Smoky Mountain News, bringing their writing directly into these pages for the benefit of us all.

Because of this emphasis on good writing, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is getting to talk to and interview some of these writers. This isn’t exactly The Paris Review’s Writers at Work interview series, but within this publication’s format regional authors are encouraged to discuss their life and art at length.

There is simply no other publication I know in Western North Carolina providing this level of writer and reader service. A great example is this week’s cover story on writer, storyteller and all-around regional personality Gary Carden.

I’ve known Gary since I was 5 or 6 years old. When I was a few years older than that, say 9 or 10, I clearly remember him setting up for plays in the old school located at Mark Watson Park in Sylva. I don’t know why we were there; my parents didn’t act in plays. But my Dad wrote and Gary wrote and that made for commonalities.

What impressed me most while at that old school-turned-playhouse was stumbling across a box full of classical music cassettes. I assume they were Gary’s.

I was crazy for classical music. It was, as you might imagine, in short supply in my hometown of Bryson City. A box containing classical music recordings was, to me, better than a box full of chocolates, gold, or whatever delights you personally care to conjure up. Here I tell on myself: I stole one of Gary’s cassettes, Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and listened to it rapturously for years.

I was thinking about that tape, and what it meant to me, while interviewing him for this week’s article. He’s 77 now, I’m 45 — a bit of water has passed under the bridge for both of us.

For most writers, the opportunity to talk about writing is a delight. The shared love of writing and literature transcends everything and can bring two otherwise unlike people together more quickly than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced. Although it felt a little odd at first to interview a giant of my childhood, the time spent with Gary quickly evolved into a lovely conversation between two writers.

I enjoyed quizzing Gary on how he works, why he works and where his work emanates from. I always ask writers who has influenced their writing style the most profoundly. Gary talked about Thomas Wolfe. His eyes lit up and he had the look and sound of a true convert — I knew exactly how he felt.

Debussy had that kind of influence on me musically. And what trains the ear trains the eye, too — thanks, Gary, for that lovely tape of music, and I’m only sorry it was theft on my part and not a gift on yours.

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

The secret life of Quintin Ellison

In a time-wasting exercise, I was giving thought recently about my earliest memory, which is of getting my knee stuck in the balusters of a porch in my family’s house in Columbia, S.C.

We lived there briefly while my father attended graduate school at the University of South Carolina. My memory might not be particularly earth shattering, but it certainly has the virtue of earliness. I had been born but a short time before, maybe two or three years previously.

What I remember about the knee incident I pretty much spelled out in that first sentence. I can add that my mother or father rescued me. Never the sharpest knife in the drawer, I managed to get stuck several more times in the porch balusters. There apparently was enough room for me to slip my knee between but not enough, for some reason, to pull it out again.

Following the knee incident, my next vivid memory is getting locked with a friend in the bathroom of that same house in South Carolina. We couldn’t figure out how to turn the lock and free ourselves. I’m frankly unsure how this suspenseful incident resolved itself. Though it seems self evident that I was freed somehow since I’m not writing this some four decades later sitting in a bathroom of a residence in Columbia, S.C.

My trip down memory lane started after reading the highly enjoyable The Secret Life of James Thurber. Thurber was writing in response to the then just-published The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. Thurber, in his article, bemoans a lack of childhood romance and drama when compared with Dali, who recounted wild real and imagined happenings that he wrote took place when he was a young lad. Dali, of course, grew up to be a great artist. Thurber grew up to be a fantastic humorist.

Childhoods, I concluded, obviously count for something, so I thought I’d think about mine.

Dali recounted a youth peopled with glamorous and interesting adults. Thurber, an Ohio boy, made do with “mainly … 11 maternal great-aunts, all Methodists, who were staunch believers in physic, mustard plaster, and Scripture, and it was part of their dogma that artistic tendencies should be treated in the same way as hiccups or hysterics.”

I understand Thurber’s feeling of paucity, I truly do, and I feel the lack more and more the older I become. I didn’t, however, even have the great aunts he mentions. They were all well away in Virginia and North Carolina while I was undergoing my formative growth way down yonder in the Deep South.

Though in fairness, I do remember visiting my Great Aunt Tillie in Danville, Va. Tillie was short, don’t ask me why, for Lucille. Great Aunt Tillie was legally blind, but she could make out vague outlines. She was never one to let a little thing like terrible eyesight and possible visual misinterpretations blunt her acid tongue. She once heatedly accused me of biting my toenails though really my legs at the time were just propped up, where admittedly they shouldn’t have been, on the back of her sofa. But I certainly wasn’t biting my toenails, nor have I ever done such a thing — truly.

My personal story picks up steam ever so slightly when we moved from South Carolina to Starkville, Miss. We lived in a small brick ranch house in the suburbs of this fine college town. This was in 1970 I believe, and residents were still experiencing the upheavals of desegregation. But, I was too young to have much cognizance of that important historical event.

What I remember is trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. I remember learning to ride a real bicycle instead of a tricycle. That happened when my sister persuaded me to sit on a two-wheel bike. She gave it a little shove down what Mississippians and 4-year-olds on a bike for the very first time would consider a mountain — a very steep, long, scary mountain.

But of the Civil Rights movement that helped shape our great nation, I have no real memories at all. I do recollect that in first grade in the Mississippi elementary school I attended black and white children tended to sit separately, automatically and apparently voluntarily. On one occasion several black children were passing a blowpop sucker from hand to hand, sharing, but that blowpop wasn’t extended to me or the other white children. I desperately wanted a taste of the blowpop, it was cherry as I remember, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a taste, too.

Which is my recollection of the travails of desegregation in Mississippi. That’s hardly the makings of a good book, a good column or a good story, for that matter. But in the end, I accept that I am the sum of these small, rather lackluster memories, as Thurber accepted he was of his. They are what they are — we can’t all be Salvador Dali, after all. Some of us must just be ourselves.

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

Earning the right to indulge myself

I was recently among a group of friends who were discussing habits — what they are and why we have them. Something I noticed pretty quickly is how those of us participating in the conversation, me included, tended to justify those habits we want to keep no matter how destructive they are for our health or emotional wellbeing.

“I don’t do this, so I should be able to do this,” the line of reasoning generally went. Or, to bring the thought from the abstract to the concrete, the logic seemed to follow this pattern: I gave up smoking (substitute your favorite addiction) so I don’t worry about eating five gallons of ice cream a night. If that’s what it takes not to smoke, oh well, I earned that right.”

The problem with this sort of reasoning is that there’s no great scorekeeper in the sky keeping tabs on our giving-ups with our substitutings. Just because I quit smoking the two packs of cigarettes a day I once smoked doesn’t mean that devouring bowls of ice cream or eating entire packs of cookies won’t kill me, too.

I have what’s commonly referred to as an addictive personality, mixed with an attractive sprinkle of obsessiveness. Anything I like a little, I soon find myself overdoing and wallowing about in excess. This extends to the obvious habits: smoking, drinking, food. But I have to be wary of over-exercising when I’m exercising, or reading one book by an author only to find myself trapped in having to read every book ever written by that author.

Which brings me to a digression: If you have a personality similar to mine, do not, I warn you, make the mistake of  “sampling” Henry James. I fell into this trap because I long felt a certain need, an itch that needed to be scratched, of filling a James gap in my education. I’d read and enjoyed James’ The Portrait of a Lady in college, but that was about my only exposure to this great writer. That being the case, last summer I decided to read “a bit” of James. Four or five months later, and I’m trapped: James was horrendously long-lived and prolific, with three distinct writing periods that included some 20 novels and what seems an endless number of shorter works.

It took me — and I’m a fast reader — about eight weeks to wade through The Wings of the Dove. I’m still not sure I even liked the damned thing. I’ve been eyeballing The Golden Bowl, but haven’t yet been able to make the mental commitment to read it. But given my personality, this isn’t as much about choice as one might think and hope. This last James novel must, at some point, be read — and I might as well admit it and start.

Recent scientific studies show that some people literally might be hardwired for addiction.

The BBC last week reported on a study of addiction that recently finished up in the United Kingdom. The news service noted it long had been established that the brains of drug addicts have some differences to those of other people. But experts were unsure whether drugs changed the wiring of the brain or if drug addicts’ brains were wired differently in the first place. Researchers studied the brains of cocaine or crack addicts with brains of  “clean” brothers or sisters. They found abnormalities in both, suggesting, they said, that addiction is in part a “disorder of the brain.”

But the study, by revealing identical abnormalities in both the addicts and their “clean” siblings, indicates more than just hopeless acceptance in the face of addictions: self control plays a role, too. The non-addicted siblings had very different lives despite sharing the same susceptibilities.

Cocaine and crack use aside, where the application of these findings are obviously of the greatest import, the study I think contains hints about behavior for the rest of us.

It’s easy for a person like myself to simply give in to my wants. But like it or not, there is an element of self-control at play. I might want to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps, yes — but do I have to? Do I need to? Of course not. And nor have I “earned” the right to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps by not having done something else. Something to perhaps chew on the next time I get a late-night eating urge.

(Now if only I could reason my way to not reading that final, very long, James novel ... of course, maybe if I do read and finish it, I’ve earned the right to eat those gingersnaps after all …)

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

An old friend comes for what I hope is a short visit

A good friend of old came to stay last week. A great respecter of proper etiquette, she provided ample warning of her pending arrival, noting that she planned on getting in midweek and staying for the foreseeable future.

That bold presumption of welcome might seem strange unless I explain how close and intertwined we are as friends. This is someone that I truly can refuse nothing. We go a long way back — there are decades of intimate times and shared memories. This is a friend who has helped mark the passages of my life; we are so close as to be virtually one.

I don’t mean to imply that she’s overstayed her welcome, though between you and me I do keep dropping hints that perhaps it is time to call this visit to an end — there are things I want, even need, to do. A guest, no matter how inconspicuous in habits and unassuming in manners, still requires attention and care.

But I admit that she really isn’t a bad houseguest, as houseguests go. She is amazingly patient regarding the three cats, for example. I know they must keep her up some nights, with their chasing and romping and determination to curl up on top of any available lap, particularly a lap as ample as hers. She is a big woman, huge even. Despite her looming presence she takes up surprisingly little room in the tiny cabin that, these days, I call home. Her baggage, however, is something else again.

She’d emphasized that I wasn’t to go to ANY SPECIAL TROUBLE in an email I’d received about her impending visit (she likes a little drama, not too much but just enough to spice up situations, hence the capital letters). The futon downstairs would be FINE for her, and she’d SHOP FOR HERSELF and perhaps even COOK ME DINNERS in the evenings on those nights I didn’t have meetings. It would be FUN, she wrote, a lot of REALLY GOOD FUN to sit around and chat and reminisce.

She knows my ways of old, and asked if I believed still that chicken potpies are the proper diet of the gourmand. If so, she’d make some for me from scratch. She’d roll out the dough, use free-range chicken and organic vegetables, and generally do them up right. Perhaps, she wrote, they’d rival those I’d eaten with such relish years ago in Pennsylvania Dutch country, land of the greatest potpies on earth. Not many people, only this true friend in fact, know these sorts of details about me; or care to know them, for that matter. Who else would remember I’m a fool for chicken potpies made by the Amish in Lancaster County, Penn.?  

I could tell that she really wanted our visit to be special and unforgettable.

Reluctantly, I wrote back to let my friend know that I’d sworn off meat. Chicken potpies, unfortunately, were taboo to my dinner plate for now. I made sure to emphasize how generous her offer truly was, particularly the whole chicken-potpie-from-scratch-bit. But I suggested that this might not be such a good time to visit. I was really busy, I wrote, what with work and exercise and reading and trying to write beyond what was strictly required for the newspaper. I finally felt that there was some space in my life to get stuff done, those things that she knew I’d dreamt my entire adult life about doing: running trail races, hiking and camping, writing fiction, playing music again.

But she wouldn’t be deterred. She was absolutely, irrevocably determined that we spend some quality time together, one-on-one, catching up on all those good times we’d had and creating some new memories together. It had been too long, she wrote, for friends such as us to be parted.

I was to expect her. It was simply no good to argue. And she indeed arrived, with an immense amount of luggage, piles and piles of it. There was so much baggage I couldn’t conceive of where we’d store it in the cabin. There were perhaps six bags and two or three trunks. The bags and trunks seemed really heavy when I helped carry them in through the door.

“What in the world did you bring?” I asked her a bit nervously. “Oh,” she replied airily, “nothing you’ve not seen me in before. Though there are a couple of new things that I believe you’ll enjoy.”

I felt her presence in my life immediately. Even during those times without her at work, or while attending dinner parties or other social events that had been prescheduled before her arrival, I could, as of old, feel my good friend right there with me.

Perhaps, I thought, this is how twins feel. That even when apart, they are never really separate — it has been a familiar feeling, at times even slightly seductive, to once again experience such a truly intimate relationship. I haven’t experienced deep understanding like this in quite some time.

As I write this, my good friend remains in my cabin, with her bags and trunks stacked high. There is just enough room for me to walk and find my own space apart from her. Although the paths are narrow and hard to navigate, I’ve dealt with piles of her luggage before. I know that there are ways through the baggage. Perseverance counts in situations like these, a bit of grit and get-up-and-go, some faith, hope and confidence.

My friend, I’m happy to report, recently put nametags on her luggage, the only trouble being that she has always gone by so many different names: Melancholia, Gloom, Despair, Woe, and others. Now I know why she carries so much baggage.

At least, though, this leads me to believe that she might intend to take them up and depart sometime soon.

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

McCrae’s new book a must have for local historians

Macon County residents, indeed all local history buffs, are about to receive a great gift from Barbara McRae, editor of The Franklin Press.

Barbara is a noted regional historian with unmatched knowledge, in particular but not exclusively, of Macon County. Whether you’re discussing current events or those happenings that took place long ago, she is the eminent, go-to source.

Though journalists such as myself generally shy from making pronouncements such as “the very first” or “the most qualified” out of fears such bold assertions will prove incorrect, I am confident in asserting no one is more qualified to record Macon County’s history than Barbara McRae — and that she’s both the first word and the last word on this topic.

She has done an exemplary job of compilation in her soon-to-be-released Placenames of Macon County, N.C. Users of The North Carolina Gazetteer by Williams S. Powell will recognize his influence on the construction of Barbara’s book: a place name followed by description and history.

The title of Barbara’s book, though accurate, doesn’t begin to do justice to the quality of research and impressive, nowhere-else-to-be-found historical data. A tell-on-myself personal note is in order: readers would have had Placenames of Macon County, N.C. much sooner if I’d worked more quickly on proofreading the draft. Though woefully late in my delivery of the manuscript (try six months, I believe), I’m thrilled that I had the pleasure of finding an occasional point-size variance or a rare inconsistency in style usage. I beg Barbara’s forgiveness here, in print, for my shameful procrastination.

Barbara is an amazing historian who has, literally, spent years and years researching her topic. No fact is safe with Barbara on its trail. She has pored over old records at the Macon County courthouse, conducted interviews and gleaned what seems every old tale ever related about Macon County for the benefit of us, her readers.

A taste of what you can expect include this notation under “Peek,” a familiar place name and family name in Macon County. I’m distilling Barbara’s 10-column inch or so recording of all-things Peek to a few paragraphs to, I hope, provide the flavor of the book and her distinctively succinct, yet personal, writing style.

“Zachariah Peek (also spelled Peak and Peake) and his wife, Sarah Anne Moore, came to Macon County soon after the Cherokees ceded the area by treaty in 1819. He and his brother David were listed in Buncombe County in the 1820 census but apparently moved west the same year … Zachariah obtained several tracts of land, mostly on Ellijay, before his death in 1845. He had eight children, including William Comer “Panther Bill” Peek, who was born in Macon County in 1822.

“Panther Bill got his nickname after killing a panther in a remarkable way. His dogs had the cat penned under a overhanging rock; Bill threw his ax at the animal and killed it instantly, nearly severing its head …

“Peeks Creek took the national spotlight on Sept. 16, 2004, when the community along the creek suffered a disastrous landslide. Heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan fell on soil already saturated from the Sept. 7 Hurricane Frances storm. The slide, or debris flow, claimed five lives and 15 homes and left its mark on the mountain.”

Another entry relates the origins of the name Wayah Gap, which the Cherokee called Atahita, “Where they shouted.”

“The name comes from the myth of a giant yellow jacket that once preyed on the Indian children,” Barbara notes. “Sentries posted at the Gap were the first to spot the marauding insect. They gave the shout that led other braves to the beast’s lair. This gap is one of a series of openings in the great wall of the Nantahalas. Historically, it provided the most convenient passage to the west. Tradition (again retold by (Margaret) Mrs. Siler) claimed that during a battle at the gap between Rutherford’s forces and the Cherokees in 1776, one of the slain warriors was found to be a woman.”

It occurs to me that in addition to Macon County residents and general aficionados of local history such as myself, those with family roots in Western North Carolina will find Barbara’s book invaluable. Particularly those living in Swain, Jackson and Cherokee counties I believe, because there seemed to be so much intermingling of people and families from that area. And I learned that salient fact by reading Placenames of Macon County, N.C.

(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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