Writers Conference: Stars on Parade

Photo of Rod BelcherThe 12th Roanoke Regional Writers Conference is less than a week away and once again, we have a lineup that would be the envy of much larger conferences. The conference–Jan. 25 and 26 at Hollins University–will cover a lot of professional writing ground in 17 classes Saturday and sci-fi superstar Rod Belcher’s keynote address Friday, but most important, it will introduce the regions writers to the region’s writers.

Writing is often a solitary venture and the RRWC represents a sort of junior high recess for those most often hunkered down before a white screen, pounding out work on deadline.

Photo of Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Prior

The lineup–all of the teachers from our section of Virginia, one of the richest grounds in the U.S. for writing–is dotted with regional and national stars. Perhaps the fastest rising of those stars is Karen Prior, the Liberty University English professor who has become a fixture in the national media, which covers both her life and her writing on a regular basis (currently, the New Yorker Magazine). Karen, who was nearly killed last year in Nashville on a book tour for her most recent release, On Reading Well, has titled her RRWC class “I thought I Understood Virtue Because I Wrote a Book About It. Then I Got Hit By a Bus.” A laugh a minute, that Karen.

We also feature the following among our classes: Mary Bishop on memoir; Ed Falco on fiction; Mary Hill on young adult writing; Bill Kovarik and I teaming on creating a community publication with integrity and pizazz; Liz Long on getting published;  and Harry Wilson on writing about politics in a toxic environment. There’s much more and the cost is only $65 for the whole shooting match, including lunch Saturday in the Hollins dining room, which I highly recommend.

You can read more about the conference (including a complete list of teachers and their resumes) here.

Getting Ready for the Women’s March

Applejack of Franklin County winding it up and letting it out. Good band.

The Corey women: Jeanette, Sara and Sophie (4) all came equipped with their “pussy hats.”

I’m afraid I got to the Roanoke Women’s March today before anything of substance–save Applejack playing on stage–was happening. But Applejack is a sparkling three-piece women’s band with big, broad vocals and some instrumental work that is impressive. I hadn’t heard of this band from Franklin County, but now that I have, let me say it’s one of my faves.

Anyhow, there were a few souls there, waiting for a lot more to get out of Women’s March morning meetings and show up for the speeches and the march itself (as well as all those marvy signs).

My pal, Robin Barnhill, talked me into posing with the Blue Wave.

The sign-makers managed to squeeze in new City Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd, but left out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Nice hat with the bunny tail ears.

Getting ready for the coming crowd at the Women’s March.

Happy Birthday, Sweet Margie

Margie with her birthday meal.

Because of her work schedule, we’ve had to stretch out the celebration of my Margie’s birthday this week, but she hasn’t seemed to mind. Today is actually the anniversary of her birth, so let’s give a big cheer for Margaret Cates Herring, my sweetie. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaay, Margie!

Because her tastes run toward the simple, I gave Margie the choice of dinner out or dinner in, her pick of menu. She chose steak, baked potato (with about half a pound of butter) and a fresh garden salad. I added a small round of cheese cake. Margie, who’s about as big as one of my legs, eats like a linebacker and loves just about everything, so she was in heaven with the meal.

An Unreal Winter Soup for a Snowy Day

Here’s the final product–Mother Smith’s World Famous Winter Soup.

Getting the veggies ready.

This one had an inspiration. I joined my friend Bill Elliot at Local Roots (owned by Bill’s wife, Diane) last week and ordered a fascinating-sounding potato-cabbage soup. It was scrumptious with a tiny hint of hot.

So, I thought I’d add a little variety and make my own. Today offered the perfect opportunity with the ground covered in snow and a layer of ice.

Here’s what I needed to get started:

  • Simmering in the ham broth.

    1.5 quarts of ham broth (you can use chicken broth, but you won’t get the richness)

  • Half a head of cabbage
  • Half a medium sweet onion
  • Four medium-sized potatoes (peeled, but keep the peels. They make great French fries)
  • Eight ounces of fresh Brussels sprouts
  • Sage
  • Basil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Fresh rosemary (as a garnish; I picked mine, ice covered, from my back yard plant)

Into the blender to puree.

Bring the broth to a boil and turn the heat to medium. Dice all the veggies and put them in the broth. Sprinkle in the spices. Simmer covered tightly for about an hour until the veggies are mushy.

Remove the vegetables from the broth (I poured the broth through a strainer), put them into a blender to puree them. Pour the puree back into the broth and simmer for another 20 minutes.

That’s the whole deal. Simple and easy. And wonderfully tasty.

Hint: Before eating the soup, drink a nice slug of Bean-o. This is gas personified.

An Afternoon at the Courts in Southeast

Neighborhood basketball–even in the South–is irresistible to a photographer, so I had to turn around and go back to this game in Fallon Park today after I’d past it. Fallon is in Southeast Roanoke and the neighborhood is nicely integrated.

I really like the basketball in black and white because it is reminiscent of what the basic game looked like 50 years ago and today. Same game, same guys, same photos. I like that a lot.

Now, as to the young women who accompany the boys, it seems the fashion has changed somewhat. I mentioned to my grandgirl Madeline that her bluejeans appeared to be a little airy with all the tears, but she was a piker compared to the youngster pictured here.

A Little Different Clutter in the Creeks

Near the railroad overpass, lots of plastic bottles and bags about 50 feet from the Roanoke River.

The last few times I’ve walked or kayaked the confluence of Wolf and Tinker Creeks near Vinton, the big problem was a logjam of trees, brush and various natural piles of brush. Today, the creeks, which empty into the Roanoke River near their confluence, was clear of nature’s mess, but more than made up for it with people’s plastic bags.

I’m one of those strongly in support of banning plastic bags because they often end up in our streams and rivers, looking awful, killing fish and wildlife and living for nearly 100 years.

My guess is that one of the local governments (not sure which one’s in charge here) cleaned up the brush, but whoever did was thorough. Here’s what the creeks looked like just a little while ago today.

Bags hung in trees.

This section of the river is often clogged with brush, branches and trees, but today it was littered with white plastic bags.

Fishermen tend to leave signs they were there.

Some jerk just threw this bag down in a pond beside the greenway.

This was the only floating debris I found. Imagine it 10X and that’s what’s usually here.

Starting the New Year on the Right Foot

I was taken by this rock formation along the river.

My new family crest.

My hiking pal Susan and I took our first excursion of the year on New Year’s morning, traversing the trails along the Roanoke River at the Explore Park.

It was stark, soggy from recent rain, a bit chilly and quite lovely for those who took the opportunity to look.

Here’s some of what we saw.

I like lichen’s colors in the dreary winter wood.

Some fishermen are luckier than others.

Susan makes her way through a recent obstacle.

Edible? Who knows?

A window on the world.

Black and white and color.

The old man can still climb.

Susan’s photo of our trail.

You can put your kayak in here.

Susan says this was an owl in a previous life, one she could save with a photo.

Slow running creek in a soggy forest.

Good Women; Good Books

I am sitting at my desk looking at two newish books by women I greatly admire, Karen Swallow Prior and my former sister-in-law, Shirley Raines. Both books are non-fiction and each woman has spent a notable career in education.

Shirley’s book (An Uncommon Journey: Leadership Lessons from a School Teacher Who Became a University President), is one of 15 or so she’s written. It is a memoir of sorts about a West Tennessee farm girl who went on to become president of the University of Memphis (which is about the same size as Virginia Tech, if you need a comparison). She and my brother, Sandy, met in college and married, producing a son (who produced grandkids). They later divorced.

(Note: While president at UM, Shirley, operating without an athletic director, hired Justin Fuentes as football coach. He coaches at Virginia Tech now and was arguably the best football coach in Memphis’ history.)

Shirley’s book is rarely personal, but is, indeed, instructional, getting to her point that she is a woman who took advantage of opportunities, studied, worked, schmoozed and learned how to be the leader everybody else looked (and still looks) up to. It is a solid read for women–and men–seeking inspiration as they move up the professional ladder.

My friend Karen’s latest book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, has been roundly adored by reviewers and a wave of readers who love books–as Karen does. She is a professor of English at Liberty University and perhaps that university’s most admired individual, though hardly its best known (Jerry Falwell Sr. and Jr. would fill that role). Karen’s even-tempered, thoughtful and kind analysis of any situation makes her an intellectual favorite of people on my side of the political fence–one whose philosophy she generally does not share.

Within these 250 or so pages, Karen talks about how great literature helps shape those who read it, “exploring twelve virtues that philosophers and theologians throughout history have identified as most essential for good character and the good life.” The central focus here is obviously of great importance to Karen, who earlier wrote the wonderful Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, a memoir in books, which she calls “a love story.”

On Reading Well is a book about reading books and if that doesn’t grab you by the ears, then simply open the it to any page and start reading. It’s hard to put down this little jewel, which gives you all the excuses you’ll need for being diverted by whatever book is in your hands at the moment.

Karen, who was hit by a bus in Nashville last year shortly after On Reading Well came out, is one of our teachers this year at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. The title of her class: “I Thought I Understood Virtue Because I Wrote a Book About It; Then I Got Hit by a Bus.” Register and get info here.

‘Unfit for Office’ Has a GOP History

George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney: Unfit for office.

The NYTimes, in a commentary by David Leonhardt today, says bluntly that Donald Trump “is demonstrably unfit for office.” I consider that a vast understatement, but it has become the standard for Republicans in the White House.

You know, on a daily basis, that Trump is more a mob figure than a president, but what about the Republicans who preceded him?

George W. Bush was an intellectual lightweight who was little more than a place setting for a GOP run by Vice President Dick Cheney and a cadre of right-wing, war-mongering holdovers from previous Republican administrations. If you want a short course in Cheney, see the excellent movie “Vice,” which is hard to sit through because it relates a difficult story about our country’s demise. Bush is, appropriately, played as a dim bulb.

Bush’s father was part of the “arms for hostages” deal with Iran and illegal shenanigans in Central America that would have had Ronald Reagan impeached if he’d had another year in office. He committed war crimes (targeting civilian populations with bombs), lied about the invasion of Iraq, was a racist (remember Willie Horton?), and, like Trump, groped women (eight have come forward recently).

Ronald Reagan, not the sharpest pencil in the box by any measure under normal circumstances, had the additional weight of bearing early signs of dementia (Alzheimer’s was fully diagnosed in 1994).

Gerald Ford was appointed president by Richard Nixon so he could pardon Nixon of his many crimes prior to impeachment. Ford was never thought of as more than a lightweight congressman from a distant district. Nixon actually considered appointing former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, but thought better of it. Holton would have been great for America, awful for Nixon and the GOP.

Richard Nixon was … well, you know what he was.

Each of these men was, I think, “demonstrably unfit for office,” but none of them reached the depths Trump has reached on a daily basis for immorality, corruption, dishonesty, lack of understanding of government (and his office specifically) and concern for anything other than himself.

(Photo: New York Times.)

Trouble Sleeping? Check Your Kindle

Sleep has been especially difficult of late and I was out of ideas until I brought it up to Margie this morning over coffee (decaffeinated). She suggested it might have to do with my “circadian rhythm,” which I’d never heard of.

The explanation (here) is actually pretty simple:

“Ninety percent of people in the U.S. admit to using a technological device during the hour before turning in, and children often use electronic media to help them relax at night. … using electronic devices before bedtime can be physiologically and psychologically stimulating in ways that can adversely affect your sleep.

“Here’s what happens: Using TVs, tablets, smartphones, laptops, or other electronic devices before bed delays your body’s internal clock (a.k.a., your circadian rhythm), suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. This is largely due to the short-wavelength, artificial blue light that’s emitted by these devices. The more electronic devices that a person uses in the evening, the harder it is to fall asleep or stay asleep. Besides increasing your alertness at a time when you should be getting sleepy, which in turn delays your bedtime, using these devices before turning in delays the onset of REM sleep, reduces the total amount of REM sleep, and compromises alertness the next morning. Over time, these effects can add up to a significant, chronic deficiency in sleep.”

My GP (who seems to know about technology, too; she’s amazing) says to use the “nightshift” blue blocking device on the Kindle. I’ll give it a shot.