Thank you, Parnassus!

There's nothing more fun than spending some time in a good bookstore, and this week I had a great reason for stopping by the always-interesting Parnassus Books in Nashville. Parnassus has been kind enough to carry my previous book, and this week they honored me by giving Memaw's Maxims a try.

Parnassus is in Green Hills, and I highly encourage you to go in and shop, especially with Christmas coming up. It's one of those great stores where you can talk with staff and ask for recommendations, or you can just wander the aisles and enjoy a comfortable chair while you relax. And, if you're lucky, you can pet a shop dog. 

Parnassus is rapidly becoming a Nashville institution, and it really filled a void that happened when Davis-Kidd left the market. If you've never been, then you'll find it on Hillsboro Road in the same shopping center as Levy's and Donut Den, which are two other Nashville traditions that you should visit sometime.

I want to give a big thank-you to Parnassus Books for giving me a chance, and I hope that you'll linger a bit longer at the "Local Authors" sections (there are two of them), where you can pick up a copy of Memaw's Maxims and lots of other great books.


A couple days ago I visited a Czech museum exhibit that was a bit surrealistic and a bit existential. The exhibit included several dark and dreary paintings, two sound "events" and an even darker cartoon narrated by the artist.

The cartoon narration was moody and depressing and bizarre, and I felt that the artist was trying too hard to be "edgy," for lack of a better word. Honestly, it felt forced, and I think the guy was just a little too pretentious. But his narration has continued to run through my head, much like the lines from a Monty Python film.

Cue the Burcak. In the Czech Republic there is a special type of Moravian young, fermented wine called Burcak, and it's available only for about three or four months a year. It's in season now, and because it's fermented it can't be safely bottled. It's very low in alcohol, and tastes a lot like a cider. Today I found a small wine shop carrying Burcak, and I enjoyed a glass and cheese as local neighbors stopped by to have their liter bottles filled.

The lady at the wine shop insisted that I carry home a liter, and tonight I have been sipping on that. And it has led me to create a counter to the existentialist crap that passed as art in Prague. My turn.  JKT

I walked up to the man and asked where I was but he would not speak to me for there was a tear in his eye but not a face and the tear fell into the water and it was me and I was the river that could drown myself, but not you. For what are you except a dream that carries forward the lies that you have taught yourself. I would speak to you but my voice has been taken by the cloudless winds that affirm the nature of the futility and you say to me where but I answer why and you pretend to know the answer, but it lies undiscovered. The world shouts and I whisper but unrecognized we leap and fly to places in our minds, unknown. The face looks at me with no eyes to see what I have told it, which is nothing. 


I got bored and walked out on that cartoon narration, and I would hope that you would do the same, even with Burcak. At least I'm going to include some random, pretty pictures. All my best. JKT

A Little Trick

One of the greatest tricks in military history was not a maneuver, but a calculated attempt to fool a superior enemy.

The Thirty Years War was waged from 1618 to 1648, and was predominantly about religion (Catholic and Protestant) but was also a chance to renew old battles and settle old scores. It was a world war that in the end brought eight million casualties (including famine and disease) and reset the power structure in Europe.

One of the best stories, if good stories can come from war, is the one involving the Swedish siege of the Moravian town of Brno. After over three months of attempting to take Brno, the commander of the Swedish army let it be known that if he had not taken the town by a certain date in December of 1645, that he would march his troops out of town.

The leader of the defending army in Brno discovered the pledge, and came up with a plan. On the day that the Swedish army had pledged to leave by noon, at 11:00 AM the Moravians rang the church bells 12 times, as if it were noon. The invaders heard the bells ring a dozen times, and even though it was still an hour until noon, they marched out of town.

Brno celebrated their success, and they still celebrate their victory by trickery. Even today, at 11:00 A.M. in Brno, the church bells ring 12 times. 

Take a break

Two weeks ago I took the kids to Knoxville to watch our Vols destroy BYU, and to send their boys back to Utah with a lesson learned.

We had a great time. We got to spend a couple hours at a fantastic tailgate with my old roommate and his wife and other assorted friends and visitors, then Ella got to see the Tennessee dance team up close, so close that she actually got the jitters. I was able to "high five" with Smokey, which was very cool, or very weird. Probably cool.

Everything was great, until the game started. Check that. Everything was great until the game ended. Then 90,000 of us wearing orange zombie-walked out of Neyland Stadium, with the main topic of discussion being what kind of basketball team we'll have next year.

The next morning we got up early and left Knoxville, going to stop by Granville to check on the folks. As we pulled off the interstate in Baxter, I asked Ella if she wanted to do something different. She said sure, so we went a little farther north and took the time to visit Cummins Falls. Cummins Falls is a relatively new state park, and may be the prettiest place in Jackson County that isn't in Granville.

We decided that it didn't matter whether we were properly dressed, that this was a perfect chance to go swimming, or rock climbing, or snake avoiding, or whatever else the wilderness might throw at us. Cummins Falls is gorgeous, but it is impossible to get to. The trek to the falls includes rappelling yourself down a hillside, then sliding down a fallen poplar until you fall butt-first into smooth, water-worn rocks. They hurt, but you never want to let your kids see that, so when you cry you tell them that you're thinking about a song by Air Supply. That usually does it with my two.

After several hours of hiking up the creek bed, tripping over people who thought it would be good to bring their dogs, complete with ropes tied around their precious little necks, we finally found the actual falls. The kids were disappointed that they had no bathing suits. Not a problem, said their sympathetic dad. Just jump in with your clothes on. Ella and Cal both agreed that that was the correct answer, and for the next 90 minutes they climbed all over the rocks and stood beneath every bit of water that fell over the ledge. They also enjoyed jumping into the pool. They could have killed themselves, but that's the chance you take.

Our trip to Cummins Falls was one of the best days that we've had in a while, and probably because it was completely impromptu. I read this morning that the place has become so popular that they're probably going to start limiting visitors, by issuing just a certain number of permits per day. That's too bad, but I do understand.

I think I want to go back there with the kids, but need to do it soon, because it does take endurance and feats of strength to get down there. The hike back up the hill is even worse, but I can handle that. As Cal says, anytime that he's faced with insurmountable odds, you've just got to believe in yourself.

If you're anywhere near Jackson County, I highly encourage you to make the trip over to Cummins Falls. I exaggerated a little about getting to the falls, maybe even lied, and I bet you can make the journey down, take a swim, and climb back out. Just watch out for the bears.


Yesterday, I visited an exhibit of painting and sculpture by a man who was from an Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. His name was Alberto Giacometti, and his work was fascinating.

That's not to say that I always understood what he had created, and in some instances I wasn't really sure what he was hoping to see within his final work.

In the exhibit there was a small film clip of him at work, and he was saying, in that, that if he worked on a piece for a thousand years, that he might never be satisfied, but that he could say that he was "getting closer." That was interesting.

After that, he said that he could work on a piece and say that it was a success, and that it was a failure...which is to day that success can be measured only by failure.

And I liked that. Yesterday was a great day for me, but one that was exhausting, and as I arrived back at my room I knew that I could not possibly write the blog that I had promised myself, to keep the streak alive. So, now I will finish up in a few days, with an empty day, but that's what worked for me. Success can be measured only by failure, and one day missing of the 30 on a row is just about all right.

The Fall of the Wall

I'm visiting the Czech Republic this week, and one of the things I find most interesting are the special events celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of communism here in 1989, as well as the popular revolts around Europe. Most notable is the destruction of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, with a special remembrance of President Reagan's famous speech to "Tear down that wall."

In Prague there are special photography exhibited scattered around town, in museums and public places. There is a special feel to Saint Wenceslas Square, which was the site of more than one attempt to rid the country of the Russians.  It's truly an amazing story, one in which the people never gave up on their own autonomy. And today we see the results: the Czech Republic and Slovakia, friends and neighbors, but separate countries.

There are remnants of Soviet occupation, including plaques and architecture, but what I see most is a people dealing with things such as tipping. Older folks just can't get used to doing it.

I've learned a lot about a history that I only loosely followed as it happened, but it tells me that people will always desire freedom, and that can't really happen under an oppressive government, no matter what those in government think.

Always Learning

I have been struggling with trying to work with the Blogger app, to place a little post complete with pictures. Apparently it doesn't work, so to add pictures to a story you must open Blogger inside a web browser, then manipulate it and hope for the best.

Once that is done, it can be an effort to forward a post to Facebook, but I'm up for the challenge. (The challenge defeated me yesterday, after bouts with wifi and connectivity.)

It is a first-world problem, and I shall march on, wondering whether I'm at all capable of making this happen without the assistance of a kid that us under the age of 16. If you see this, then I have been marginally successful in continuing as I hoped. :-)

The Best Laid Plans

Today I'm taking a flight overseas, one that is now causing me anxiety. The flight from Charlotte to Nashville is delayed, but will be here soon. It will be fun in Philly, fighting the stampede to get off the plane with everyone else who's late. So tonight will be exciting, and I'm not sure whether I'll be spending the night in Philadelphia or somewhere over the Atlantic. Or somewhere else I cannot even imagine at this point.

Adventure is fun.  Uncertainty in travel is always a good story, later, but not as it happens. Fingers crossed and a forced smile...I'm about to board!


I grew up in a small town, a place where there were a lot of secrets, and maybe even more gossip. I know some great stories on some "fine, upstanding" folks, but for the most part have been sworn to secrecy.
What I always enjoy, though, is hearing some of the more lighthearted stories, things that are funny today, but that I'm sure would not have been back in the day. It's even better when they can be repeated.

This past weekend a lady told me a wonderful story about her great aunt climbing out of the window of the Granville Presbyterian church, during a service, to run away and get married. It seems an unlikely story, but I later talked with another family member that said the lady might have done just that.

Something inside me made me stop by the cemetery where I was told she was buried, and as I stood at her grave I realized how little those old tombstones tell us about the person they memorialize. For the rest of my life I'm going to remember that story, and I'm going to do my best to carry forward the stories of my own family. It would be a shame for them to be known only for the cold stone above their graves.


The Old Days

Today reminded me of the good old days. On the spur of the moment my dad, brother, and myself decided to drive back into an old "holler" in Granville. My daughter wasn't interested, but my 12-year-old son said he was absolutely coming along. He had already been given a chance to do a little farm driving earlier this morning, and he wanted to see how the truck would do in some rougher territory.

The place we went to was an old family farm, though it consists of so many hills that it was never much more than hard scrabble up there. When I was a kid we let cattle wander those hills, and did our best to make a little hay on the hillsides. We stored hay in the lone barn and we salted cattle on the old, flat limestone rocks in front of a long-abandoned house.

My best memories of the place, though, were when we had time to just mess around. Daddy would take me and my brother hunting up there, and would walk us back and show us old chimneys and homesteads. Mint grew alongside the spring, planted by those who lived there before our memories. One winter it was so cold that Daddy competed with us, seeing who could run and slide the farthest on a frozen pond. Those were the good old days.

Today we were stopped by a fallen tree, which was not expected, so without a chainsaw we decided to tie to it and pull it out of the road. Which, on the little road we were on, was an adventure. Cal, my son, was out of the truck in a flash and was busy clearing brush and doing everything he could to help. Once the road was open we drove back, until it was smarter to just stop.

Once stopped we all walk down to the old spring (dry because we've not had rain for weeks) where we used to play, and Cal got down in it with my dad. Honestly, my dad should not have climbed down there, but there was no stopping him. So there we were with an 82-year-old explaining to the boy 70 years his junior how the spring worked and how he was going to get back up there with a crawler and clean it out.

On the way out of the "holler" Cal took a picture of the tree that we were able to move, and he never even realized what today was for him. Today was one of his memories, it was one of his good old days.

Ode to Ralph's

Ode to Ralph's Assorted Dozen

Two butter twists
A chocolate sprinkle
A couple Blueberry
A Red Velvet
A Powdered sugar
One Raspberry filled
Two of the ones with the cream filling
Cinnamon sugar
And I guess another chocolate sprinkle, please.

The Kick

The linebacker stood above the prone quarterback and roared approval at his own vicious hit. He brought his elbows into his side, clenched his fists, then raised both arms so that the high school crowd could see his biceps flex in the dimming light of the fourth quarter.

“Tackle by Number 54, Pippin,” said the announcer, in a monotone voice that did not convey the excitement on the field.

“Get up, make it happen!” screamed the head coach at his quarterback, and then to anyone else in earshot who might listen. “Just get up. Spike it!”

The quarterback hopped up and waved his men into formation. A whistle blew, he took the snap, and slammed the ball into the ground.

“Forty-five seconds,” said the same dull voice through the crackling white speakers. “Timeout Blue Devils.”

The players from both teams stood in the middle of the field while the quarterback nodded affirmatively to his coach. He refused the Gatorade bottle, just as Samson might have done.

“Son, we are down just two points. You cannot take a sack like that. All we need is a field goal to win, and Henderson can kick from forty. Most days he can kick from forty, but get closer if you can. You have time for two or three plays. Just be calm and it will be fine. Just throw to the sidelines, because we have no timeouts.”

“I can do it, coach!”

“Remember, just don’t take a sack.”

“Blue Devils on the 47-yardline of the Cavaliers. Second down and 18, and Henderson is beginning to warm up.”


The holder turned and looked at the kicker. “Did you see that Henderson? I don’t think we’re going to get into your range, but if we do, you just have to give it all you’ve got. You just have to believe in yourself.”

“You hold it, I’ll kick it,” said Henderson, coming across like a fake version of John Wayne. His stomach was churning and he was hoping that they would get close enough to give him a chance before his false bravado ran away from him. He had already missed tonight, and that’s why his team was down.


“Pass complete to Number 44, Williamson. Second down. Nineteen seconds left on the clock.”

“Run a slant, get me 10 yards and out of bounds!” And on the sidelines a team manager held up a large poster of Spongebob Squarepants, which signaled to the team what their next play would be - slant right.

“Quarterback takes the ball, runs to the right, passes to the tight end. Referee signals complete, clock stopped. Eight seconds in the game.”


Henderson continued to kick into the net on the sidelines, trying to visualize the goal posts at 40 yards. But he did not believe in himself. He had already missed tonight. But it’s OK, no one would blame him if he missed another long one. But what if it’s close? What if they give me a 20 yard try?


“High snap, quarterback Number 12 runs right again and throw it out of bounds.”

The coach screams with a shrill, “Get my kicker out there, get Henderson out there!”


Henderson and his holder tear from the sidelines and quickly line up. The center is breathing hard and the referee is swinging his arm like a windmill. Just as the ball is snapped, a whistle blows.

“Time out, Centennial.”

“They’re trying to ice you, Henderson. Come in here and stand on the sidelines. Get it out of your head. You’ve done this in practice plenty of times, no problem.”

Henderson turned to look away from the field and all he could see was a crowd of blue and white, and the pretty cheerleaders who would never say hi to him in the hallways. Maybe that would change tonight, because he did believe in himself. He could kick that ball and he could be the hero. The team was counting on him and every bit of his 16-year-old self was going to be driven into that ball. He would not miss. He could not miss.

“Time’s up,” said the coach. “You’ve got this one, son. Win it for us.”


There was a silence to his right as the home crowd fell hushed, but to his left the visitor section was going wild. His holder stepped up and said, “It’s a long kick, but we really need this win. Give it all you’ve got, Jim.”

“Blue Devils set for the kick, Henderson Number 17 steps it off and nods. Snap is wobbly but the holder has it. Kick is up!”

Henderson is hit and falls to the ground, holding his head. He wasn’t sure, he didn’t know, he couldn’t look. It was quiet.


My Favorite Lines

I was recently reading an article about how writers should work to create memorable character names, because those are the type things that readers remember. Then this weekend I was talking with a friend about how sometimes the first lines of a story or a song can grab you and pull you in. So, for today, I want to give my top ten favorite opening story lines (with two poems) that were written by mortals.

  •  Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote.

This is the opening line to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, something that I was required to learn (complete with the proper accent) in a college English class. My professor was an expert on Middle English and the little stories of this pilgrimage to Canterbury, and he made complicated literature fun, so I must start with it.

  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

From George Orwell’s 1984, this reminds me of something that feels more likely than ever.

  • Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.

From The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. I used to read this to the kids on Halloween to terrify them, and accomplished that by using my best E.G. Marshall voice (of CBS Radio Mystery fame). They still refuse to listen to it, and are forever haunted by Lenore.

  • It was a pleasure to burn.

From Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which is supposedly the temperature at which books burn. Right now society is only pulling down statues and getting things “contextualized.” We’ll get to book burning soon enough.

  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A dear friend of mine just loves that line so much, that I feel required to include it.

  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities was once listed as the best selling novel of all time, and may still be. Its backdrop is the French Revolution, and the story is relevant today. But the opening line is more memorable because of what today might be tomorrow.

  • Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

Margaret Mitchell came up with the perfect names with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, and this line is the epitome of the woman. Do you prefer Gone with the Wind as a book or a movie?

  • It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.

The opening lines of Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, a story I read in high school that floored me with its ending. Add to that I didn’t think I was old enough to be reading it, and it was unforgettable.

  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

With all of the inventions of language and characters that were to come from J.R.R. Tolkien, I admire this simple start to The Hobbit, which were also the first lines he put to paper for that incredible book.

  • Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.

High Flight, by John Magee, is a poem I heard as a kid, when my parents would let me stay up until the local television stations signed off for the night. It was a thrill to be able to stay up late, and that poem usually marked a goal for me. Too bad television no longer stops for the night.

There you have my favorite 10 first lines, at least for this moment in time. They may not be the best, but this is my opinion. I unashamedly admit that I did look and verify that I got these correct as originally written, and I would love to hear your favorites.


The Granville Treasure

The Granville Treasure

When I was 12 or 13 years old my dad told me to fill up the water jug and hop in the truck, then he told my younger brother to grab a few apples. Daddy told us that we were going to see something really different, something that he didn’t believe existed.

We hopped in the back of his green Chevrolet pickup truck and climbed up on the frames so that we could catch all of the late summer air. Any day that we weren’t working in tobacco or hay was a good one, and we were excited about this trip.

(I’ll take a moment to pause right here and tell you that I cannot tell you where we went, exactly, or to tell you the name of the man we were meeting. If you lived in Granville in the 1960s and 70s, though, you knew him.)

It was only a few miles to our destination, so we arrived fairly quickly. The old man was sitting in a white metal glider on his carport and he told us to come on up. I had never been to his house before, and was there again only one other time in my life.

Daddy walked up to the older gentleman, shook his hand, and said that he was glad to see him The old man asked us to all grab a seat, and he asked Daddy if he wanted to hear about the mystery that was back in the woods. My dad replied that’s why he drove up there, and that he always loved a good story.

The old man said that there was a treasure buried on his land, back in the woods. When he was a boy, the story went, his grandfather took him back into the woods and showed him the place where the treasure was buried. The grandfather, as a boy back in the early 1800s, was told by an old Indian woman that a group of Spanish explorers had come through that area centuries earlier, and that they had been slaughtered by the natives. The treasure, she said, was silver.

She said her ancestors had put the silver in a cave and had sealed it up with rocks to make it look like a natural limestone formation, and had used some type of cement to further seal and disguise it. She believed that the place was haunted, that it was marked in the way of her people, and she wanted to warn away the owners to never touch it.

The old man told us most of this story as we sat on his patio, then he said that he thought he might be able to walk back there one more time, and that he wanted to discover whether the story was true. My dad asked why he called him for help, and he told us that the spot was on a hill and that he had been unable to get a bulldozer up there to knock the wall in. Daddy was pretty good with dynamite back then, and the old man wanted Daddy to blow up the wall so he could see what was in there.

It took us at least a half hour to walk back there, with the old man slowly guiding us along. After climbing up one last hill, amid the late summer vines and brambles, we finally found the place. We were told that for at least 200 years there were huge trees on either side of the wall that had Indian carvings on them, but that he had cut them down in the 1930s for their timber. The old man felt that the carved trees were probably set there either as a signpost, or perhaps as a warning. He didn’t care which, because the thing had been drawing his curiosity for decades.

Daddy walked up to the wall and my brother and I went around the back and climbed up to the top. But to us it just looked like a natural rock formation, the kind of limestone stack that you’d find in any old “holler” in the Upper Cumberland. The old man agreed, but said that he knew there was something in there, that it was just a disguise. He could still picture the trees, and he described their carvings: animals and people and lines and circles. He told Daddy that he didn’t have any money, but that if we would dynamite it, that he would share the ancient silver with us. Just wait until winter when the growth had died down, and we could blast it all away.

Daddy told him that he didn’t think it was a wall that anyone had built, and that he was afraid he would hurt or kill himself messing with dynamite. A few days ago I posted a story on my blog about a man fishing with dynamite, and that was really the extent to which Daddy felt good with explosives.

So we left the place with my brother and me begging Daddy to go back and get the treasure. The old man died soon after that, and his son inherited it. His son passed away a few years later, and he never had an interest in any “fairytales.” Today I’m not sure who owns the place, but I think about it a lot. I don’t think Daddy could walk back to that spot again, but I’m sure that I could. The logical side of me knows that Spaniards never quite got to Granville, and that it really did look like a natural formation. But I have recently looked at some maps of where Spaniards traveled, and there are unknowns and possibilities out there. The kid in me wants to believe what that old man and the old Indian woman thought - that there is a silver treasure hidden in that cave.

My dad’s memory isn’t what it was back then, so I think that my brother and I are the only ones who know the story and the place. Maybe I need to just go up to that old house and knock on the door and ask the current owners if they want to hear the story about Spaniards and their lost silver. Would they like to take a walk back into the woods?



Today is Day 15 of my quest to post some type of writing on my blog for 30 continuous days. I have to admit that I thought it would be tough, and I haven’t disappointed myself in my own pessimism. But, if my math is correct, I’m halfway through the challenge. (Let’s see, five divided by 10, carry the 3, and solve for x. Yes, halfway done.)

It’s important that I finish this challenge, because out there in the world of the Internet there are 73 people who are hanging on every word I write, so it’s important that I neither falter or give in to the struggle. Google stats suggest that 72 of those readers are possibly Russian bots, so to the one actual person who’s reading this, thank you, Mom.

The reality for most of us is that it’s hard to complete our goals. We take up an idea, often enthusiastically, then jump off too soon to something else that we’re equally enthusiastic about. Or we let fun things (like a Valentine’s Day zombie marathon on TNT) occupy the time we should be working toward our goal. Or we labor and languish because we think that what we’re doing isn’t good enough, that it has to be perfect. And seeking perfection is the death of so many good things.

I know the next 15 days will be tough, so I decided to read a good motivational book that I recently acquired. When I say “recently” that means that I’ve had it for a good four months, and when I say “acquired” that means that a friend mistakenly loaned it to me and by now she should realize that it’s never going to be returned. 

The book is called Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, and it’s written by a local gent named Jon Acuff. I read most of it, then got distracted by thrillers like The Odyssey and War and Peace. I had a temptation to just return Finish, unfinished, to the friend that loaned it to me. Then I realized that I really wanted to finish it. Besides, she’s already read it and I can justify keeping it a little longer by saying that she should know that you just never loan books. Lesson learned, Emily.

If you’re the type who starts but never finishes, then I encourage you to swing by the library or your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Finish by Jon Acuff. It’s fun, well-written, and has some great tips. It’s worth your while.

So, here ends Day 15 of my writing endeavor, though the upcoming two weeks are going to be especially rough, because I’ll be attending a little event in my hometown this weekend, I will be farming a little, and I’m taking my summer vacation (a few months too late). But I am going to do my best and will settle for less than perfect. I hope that you can, too.


The Rise of Fall

The Rise of Fall

Swaying red Maple
Leaves chase themselves to the ground
Fall is here to play.

Surrealism in War

True to my form, lately, I caught the last day of an exhibit at the Frist, but I’m very glad that I did. The exhibit was Monsters and Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s. 

 Surrealism arose around 1920, according to the exhibit, as artists were influenced by Sigmund Freud, and felt that they could step beyond the confines of the past. Many of the artists had been soldiers in the First World War, and surrealism gave them an avenue to paint their dreams and nightmares.

The most famous of the surrealistic painters are likely Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Pablo Picasso, though their styles are very different. Picasso’s most famous work is likely “Guernica,” which is an incredible bit of surrealism that came directly from the Spanish Civil War, representing an intense bombing of that Spanish town. While “Guernica” remains in Spain, the influence of the Spanish Civil War was intense upon the artists who created surrealism, and works by Picasso, Joan Miro, and others influenced by that terrible war were featured.

Surrealism was not confined to painting, and sculpture and cinema were also featured, including Un Chien Andalou, which was the first movie from Luis Bunuel. You may be familiar with Bunuel from a depiction of him in the film Midnight in Paris. I feel compelled to tell you that the 1929 surrealistic movie is about as weird as anything that I’ve ever seen, and I did not sit through the entire film. But if you ever feel inclined to see a bit of outrageous cinematic history, it is available on YouTube and clocks in at 21 minutes. 

If surrealism was born from war, then it also seemed to die with war, as the end of WWII seemed to usher in the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and others. I enjoy these types of works and artistry, and this exhibit was a great opportunity to learn more about the rise and fall of surrealism.


The Revival

It was toward the back, at the end of the fence row, partially tucked underneath an overgrown cedar. The tires were flat and the wheels were painted white, though you could not see them. Blackberry bushes had overtaken the automobile over the years, but today they had been knocked aside, revealing the turquoise doors and fenders. The roof was white, but dulled by sixty-something years of sunlight and sap.

The rear bumper retained the majority of its chrome and the sunlight reflected off of it, avoiding the taller grass that entwined its curves. The license plate was dull, rusting at the lower left corner where it had been bent in a long-forgotten accident.

The hood fought and squealed with the stress of the metal as it was raised. The cables were still attached to the six old spark plugs, all set in a row. The carburetor was open and imagination brought forth the smell of gasoline. A mouse’s nest was hidden to the rear of the fender, with an escape always available through the vent to the dashboard. The battery was missing.

A hard pull freed the driver’s side door, and the interior offered a musty smell. The upholstery was blue and worn and slick. The rearview mirror was tilted, then adjusted to view the imagined traffic that was following. The clutch engaged and the gas pedal held firm, though the brake fell to the floor. The light switch to the left of the floorboard sounded as it always had. Click, click, click - bright, dim, bright.

A push of a button popped open the trunk, cavernous and empty, except for an old jack and a box of yellowed newspapers.

The windows were all intact, and the wind blew down the hill and pushed back the grasses to expose the vehicle even further.

It had been decades since the 235 cubic inches of the motor had powered the old Chevy, but it had once climbed hills and raced teenagers home before curfew. It had sat in the back row of a double feature drive-in movie featuring an alien with two heads. It had rushed an expecting mother to the hospital, making it just in time for her early arrival. It had taken a sleepy father to his third-shift job at the aluminum plant, so that his children would have toys for Christmas. It had lived through the lives that it carried, and it was forever a memory to its passengers.

The log chain wrapped securely around the front bumper and the pickup truck strained as it pulled the old car free from its years of neglect and entrapment. The young man smiled as a mouse scurried up the hill.


Gone Fishing

The pair of teenagers gave the boat a shove and hopped in at the last minute, wanting to be sure that they didn’t get their feet wet. One of them had new Chuck Taylors and he didn’t want his mother to say anything.

“It’s not so much the heat as it is the humidity,” said Dennis, as he wiped his boyish face.

“That’s a good one, never heard that before,” said the other boy.

“It’s kind of an old one,” said Dennis, “but I like it.”

The story was that Dennis Flatt could call out a thousand different little sayings, and that he had at least three or four things that he could say on any occasion. Later on in life he would be the first person to ever say It is what it is, so everyone was always impressed, wondering what would become of this teenaged prodigy.

But on this particular day it was about the fishing. Dennis was something of a sportsman, which is to say that he didn’t always do things the legal way, but that he would never break the law if there was no chance of getting caught. Dennis had an honor code, that he would never fish illegally unless he knew that the game warden was in the county and had a chance at catching him.

“There is something to be said for nightcrawlers,” he told the other boy, “but you would never catch me with one of them jelly worms or a spinner that looks like a disco ball cutting through the green water. For my kind of fishing we’re gonna need to paddle out to the middle of the lake.”

“I didn’t know I was gonna be paddling. You said you had a boat with a motor.”

“Oh, I’ve got a nice Johnson one point five, but it’s in the shop, has a wasp nest or something, who knows.”

As they eased across the lake, Dennis opened up a duffel bag and started sorting and assembling, while the other boy just kept on paddling and sweating.

“Hey, we left our rods in the car,” said the boy.

“That’s fine, we won’t need ‘em out here. Let me tell you something John Pepper.”

(He always called friends by their entire name, which only reinforced his intelligence and his standing as eleventh in his class. He would have been top ten if it hadn’t been for that time it snowed so much and he wrecked his sled on that steep hill.)

“John Pepper, I know a man who has a contraption that looks like a television antenna, and he lowers it over the side of his john boat and then he clips that on to a couple of car batteries and the electricity shocks the fish and they can’t swim, so they have to float to the top before they drown. Fish need air, people don’t know that. So when they float to the top he scoops ‘em up and carries ‘em home. But that’s dangerous, only a fool would fish that away.”

“So what do you do, then?” asked John.

“I use dynamite.”

“Is that any safer?”

“It can be. Mine’s homemade, so I know how to handle it, and I can make it safer. I come from a long line of dynamite fishermen, so I would kind of know just by nature. They called my grandaddy TNT as a nickname, if that tells you anything.”

By that time they had got to the middle of the lake or rock quarry or whatever it was. You know the place just under the hill, right there at Whitleyville, but before you get to Kemp’s store.

Dennis pulled out a stick of his homemade dynamite, and John said he thought it should be red, not green.

“A common misconception,” said Dennis. “This is actually just part of an old hose pipe that my daddy let me cut up, and I’ve got it packed pretty good with black powder and some other secret ingredients that I cannot divulge at this time.”

“I’m not sure this is a good idea.”

“To quote Shakespeare,” said Dennis, “the middle of the lake ain’t the place to decide whether you can swim.”

“If you say so,” said John Pepper, wondering whether Miss Kelly was missing him in fourth period algebra.

“So I’m gonna strike the primer with this frizzen and it’s gonna light the fuse and you’re just gonna throw it as far as you can from us. Can you do that John Pepper, can you throw it far?”

“You know I play outfield and I can get it to the catcher in just one or two hops, but this seems kind of, I dunno, not smart.”

“I’m third generation at this, and I promise it ain’t gonna be nothing. When I light it, though, you have to throw it fast and far while I paddle. Can you do it?”

“I can do it.”

Dennis struck down upon the homemade dynamite, once, twice, three times. He didn’t cuss, because he never cussed, but the look on his face said it all.

John started to be redundant and say something again about he wasn’t sure this was a good idea, but then with one more strike the fuse was lit.

Dennis handed the sizzling dynamite to John, then picked up the paddles and gave it what for. Then he saw the panic, the indecision, the ignorance of a boy who wasn’t third generation.

“Dang it, John. Are you just gonna sit there and let that thing burn, or are you gonna fish?”


Something Good Happened Today

Something good happened today. Something good happens every day, but this good thing arrived to me in an email early this morning, while I was not yet completely awake. It’s an opportunity that I’m trying to make for myself, and it will be a fun “try” regardless of outcome.

All my life I’ve enjoyed writing, like so many of my friends - you know who you are. And it’s a fact that anyone who enjoys writing is also fond of reading. I suppose I should clarify that to say that most writers enjoy reading, and that it’s a fact that reading a lot helps our ability to write.

In my high school years I really enjoyed a diverse assortment, everything from Southern authors to science fiction to the classics. I have given away a lot of my old books from those days, but still on the shelves at my parents’ house is a good number of sci-fi stuff from Asimov, Zelazny, Cherryh, and Heinlein. Those books are in good company with biographies on Boone and Crockett, military-style things like All Quiet on the Western Front, and a pure assortment covering the old west, ghost stories, football heroes, Confederate soldiers, Shakespeare, and those condensed books that Reader’s Digest used to put out. My Memaw gave those to me, and it was in one of them that I first read the Earl Hamner story that would later become The Waltons. I just loved that story about Clayboy and his family and all of the rural, Southern drama of Spencer’s Mountain. There is a difference between the book and the TV show, by the way, and the book is worth a read.

While I’ve continued to read a little of everything (right now on my nightstand is an old Zelazny paperback, the autobiography of the Red Baron, Alice in Wonderland, and a new, weird book of short stories I grabbed off the discount stack), I’ve never abandoned the Southern stories that once seemed antiquated. These days I still enjoy Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, and they are also on that crowded nightstand. Just a few days ago, re-reading a book of shorts by Flannery O’Connor, I experienced that strange pain that A Good Man is Hard to Find always causes. With my favorites I’m given strong characters and well written stories. Simply enough, good writing continues to impress audiences, and some stories (and authors) are timeless.

So, here’s my good news. A couple weeks ago I applied to include myself as an Airbnb experience here in Nashville, and this morning my application was approved. An Airbnb experience is something like a tour guide, entertaining people in different ways. In Nashville you’ll see everything from history walks, pizza cooking, pub crawls, painting classes, wine tasting, and so forth. To be included requires an application and a process where you convince them that you can offer an “expert” experience. While I was optimistic, I wasn’t certain that I would be accepted, so it was great to get that email.

For my experience, I will be offering two-hour classes in which we discuss Southern literature, such as Welty, Faulkner, McCullers, and the Fugitives. We will discuss themes, context, character development, types of editing, costs, and concepts. Alongside and during that “class” we will be writing short stories. The group will decide whether to write individual stories or - as in the case of a group here for a bachelorette party - whether they want to write just one story, perhaps with the bride as a protagonist. Regardless of what is written, we will turn that into a short story and get it cleaned up, edited, formatted, and we will craft a nice cover for it. Then, it will be self-published to Amazon as an ebook, either under my name, or theirs - whatever is their preference.

A couple months ago I read an article about all the brides-to-be and their entourages coming down South to Nashville for parties, and how so many were looking to do something beyond the beer-enabled pedal cars downtown. Those have become so popular in downtown Nashville that the ladies riding them are called “woo-hoo girls” by the locals, a play off of what we hear from them as they ride along the streets listening to country music with a rap beat. That looks like fun but, personally, I’m off to find out whether there’s still a place for Phoenix Jackson and the Misfit. Hoping for success, not afraid of failure. Y’all hide and watch.


Try some, Buy some

A week or so ago I embarked on an endeavor, hoping to write for 30 consecutive days. I did that after a conversation with my son, Cal, who challenged me to do so. I mentioned then that we also discussed a second topic. That topic was advertising.

Cal asked me, “Do you ever really sell any of these books and stories that you’re writing?” It wasn’t a spiteful question. I had been encouraging him to practice his writing, because he’s getting into that aspect of things in class, and struggling a little. But he’s sure that he will be a gamer or a doctor, a director or a soldier, none of which requires writing. (Right, bear with me here.)

So I told him I sell some, but not bestsellers, I suppose. Sometimes I’ll speak to a group and sell to those who enjoyed the talk, that sometimes folks find me online, and sometimes I sell through a couple bookstores or on Amazon. With my books and short stories, sometimes I can find neither rhyme nor reason as to how they sell online, but the phone dings and someone has spent a few bucks to read something I wrote.

It’s a good feeling when someone buys something that you created. There's a very small profit in books, but it’s a nice little compliment. I have appreciated every single time that I've signed something for someone.

Cal, though, said what I need is advertising. I already have a website and a Facebook presence, Instagram and Twitter, an author page on Amazon, a spot on Goodreads, and probably a couple other things I’m forgetting right now - but Cal wants more. In fact, I suppose I had our little talk in mind when I wrote the short The Car Salesman the other day, with the protagonist Walter Philpot checking out his ad in the Yellow Pages, talking about advertising and a fair deal. (Reflecting, Cal is correct. I like the writing more than the selling, and so I have a tendency to just assume someone will stumble across the things I’ve done.)

But my 12-year-old son is about to take things to a new level. He lives and breathes in the world of video, and he is learning to put together little videos and insists that he is going to make some videos for me, as advertisements and commercials. I’m looking forward to seeing what he suggests, and what he does. I do know that it will be fun, possibly silly, and hopefully successful. Even if it’s not, what a blast doing something creative with him will have to be.

In the meantime, since Cal would want you to ask, my books can be ordered directly through my website, and if you order that way I’ll be able to sign them and ship to you. If you’re not interested in a signature (but of course you are! :-)) then you can order from Amazon or from Barnes & Noble. And I hope to get them into more brick-and-mortar independent stores, which is what I really enjoy, myself.

Thanks for giving this little blog a read, and until Cal gets the hit commercials done, please follow the links below. Thanks! James

Goodnight, Daddy

Goodnight, Daddy

It was around six at night, probably a little later, and I bet it was about the middle of February, but not yet Valentine’s because I hadn’t made any cards yet. Momma said that everything would be ready in just a minute, the biscuits were taking a little bit longer than normal. Would I come away from the window and get the butter out and pour the milk? The snow wasn’t going anywhere.

But how could I take my eyes away? I had never seen it snow like this. Never. Daddy had the other children out on the porch and they were watching it whip in little circles as the wind blew in through the naked oaks and sycamores. I had been sick and Momma said she didn’t need me all laid up and missing school. The porch lights reflected off the slips of ice as they came down, mixed with the snow, and I could hear them laughing out there.

For the first snow it was always gonna be breakfast when Momma cooked, whether it was morning or midnight. We had killed hogs that year and the bacon was good like it should be. The eggs were scrambled and light, and Daddy got out honey and sorghum for the biscuits.

Momma let me call the bank’s Time and Temperature line, and it told me what I knew had to be true. It was freezing enough so that the snow would stick. No way were we gonna have school tomorrow. Just no way. Daddy started to get out the Rook cards, but Momma gave him that look.

I coughed and Momma said that I needed to go to bed, that everybody needed to go to bed, and can you just imagine what it’s gonna look like when we wake up in the morning. And I stood there and looked out the window and dreamed of the feel of the wind, of the sleet as it might hit my face, of the wakening cold that was pushing through the gaps in the glass.

As I slumped to the next room to go to bed, Daddy grabbed me and picked me up off the floor and hollered at Momma that we’re going out for just a minute. She hollered back oh no you’re not - but he was laughing and so was I, and maybe Momma was too.

Daddy stood me on top of his boots so my sock-feet would stay dry. I hold so few memories, but standing on his boots when it was wet and cold, the comfort of his arms pulling me into his ragged old denim coat, you don’t forget that.

Just look at it, son, just look at it. Listen. The snow fell like feathers, or blankets, and the grass fought and surrendered, and the trees were glorified in the whiteness that rarely came to my home. The quiet, I remember the quiet, as all sounds were muffled. I could see Daddy’s coon dog running off toward the pond, and that was the only movement. The old Dodge truck was losing its form and our swingset was barely visible through the larger wisps of rushing snow.

The moon shone upon it all and gave us a feel of warmth and reflection, like a new quilt, then turned the colors of the world all yellow and white. Daddy said that if he ever gets to Heaven, that he’s just about sure that it will look like that, made to order. Then he whisked me up and said better not get Momma mad.

It’ll be a foot deep tomorrow and we’ll have snow cream. Ain’t no way y’all are going to school in this, the bus couldn’t get up here even if it quit snowing right this minute. Get your teeth brushed and get in bed and your momma will be there in a minute to say prayers with you.

His whiskers scratched my cheek. Sweet dreams, horsefly, feel better.

Goodnight, Daddy.


Monday Morning

Monday Morning

“And your change is one dollar and sixty-eight cents,” the cashier told Ashley, as she gently closed the register drawer and stepped back toward the coffee machine. 

“It’ll be just a minute.”

Ashley took her receipt and looked at her change, realizing that she had been shorted by a nickel. As she stood there waiting for her order, she stared at her new shoes and began to think.

What if I were shorted by five cents every time I made a transaction? That could add up to a hundred dollars a year, maybe more.

If that prissy little girl took a nickel every time that someone paid in cash, then she could be making five bucks a day just pulling off her little scam. She seems honest, but so does every other scam artist in the world. They smile and they yes-ma’am you, and five minutes later you’re short a nickel.

But that’s silly. She’s young and in a hurry and when you’re in a hurry you just make mistakes. If I started up trouble every time someone made an honest mistake, why I’d just spend my life complaining about people. God knows I’ve made my share of mistakes.

Still, this is a learning opportunity. She’s probably still in high school, and this is the sort of thing you need to know in the real world. That it’s fine being pretty, but that there’s more to it than that. You also have to get it right. People count on you, and you can’t just rush into it.

“It’ll be just another minute, ma’am. They’re cooking some fresh hash browns.”

“That’s fine, no hurry, I’m good.”

I’m not good! Why do I say things like that? It’s only a nickel, but I’m going to be thinking about it all day. Which is stupid. When she gets back with my order, then I’ll just casually mention it. I’ll say something like, “Oh, I’m saving change for my nephew’s classroom fundraiser, so I noticed that I’m missing a nickel here.” She won’t think I’m cheap or weird if I say it like that.

Am I really going to say something about a stupid nickel? You could take all of the nickels that I’ve ever held in my hand, and I bet they wouldn’t add up to a car payment. But am I just saying that because I’m afraid that I’ll embarrass myself. Am I trying to use cognitive dissonance as a way to get out of doing something that’s going to make me look stupid?

My grandpa told me once that he knew a man so cheap, that he’d hold a nickel so tight that the buffalo would holler. Maybe I could make a joke about that to her. But she wouldn’t get it, it’s an old joke. Or maybe she would, because don’t some nickels have buffaloes on them now? Or is it a bison? Are they the same thing?

OK, those have to be my hash browns that are waiting there. I’m actually in a hurry to get to work, so I won’t say anything, because I need to go. Why is the cashier also having to work the drive-through window? I need to look up “cognitive dissonance” to be sure I’m using that right. What if I’ve been using that term the wrong way for all these years? I don’t want to be like those people who say irregardless. What was that movie where the guy said “That word you keep using, I don’t think it means what you think it means?”

“Number fourteen! This is your order ma’am, chicken biscuit, hash browns, small coffee. Anything else?”

Ashley looked at the change in her hand, then realized that the nickel had simply been resting underneath one of the quarters. She kept staring at the coins scattered across her palm as she slowly walked to her car and drove away. There was no other sound except the silence of her mind. 

Twenty-three minutes later she pulled into her office parking lot and took a moment to breathe, to calm.

I’m fine, I’m good, I’m totally, absolutely fine. It’s just Monday. I’ve got this!

Four miles and 12 stoplights away, the cashier threw away Ashley’s forgotten breakfast.


Don't Quit

A million years ago, maybe more, I read a poem called Don't Quit. It's one that most of you have probably ready at some time, and, though it's relatively famous, no one knows who wrote it.

But it's one of those little things that motivates me, so I always carry a copy of it in my wallet, and have for years. They wear out every few months so I have to replace them, as will soon be the case with the one I'm carrying right now. Sometimes I give away my copy, if I talk to someone who's feeling overwhelmed. And we are all overwhelmed sometimes, I know.

I'm just on Day 6 of my little challenge to myself, and I'm having fun writing a little something every day, enjoying the false pressure. So this slip of paper was a little "boost" for me today.

For the next million years I will be reading poems such as Don't Quit and Invictus, and I will enjoy the motivation that they give me. Is there anything you read, or something that you do, to keep yourself on track?

Keep Plowing Away

Keep Plowing Away

I watched my father plow, when I was a child,
The slow, straight, deliberate lines of a man trapped on the land;
When he turned and drove away I watched and admired him,
As he came near I looked away, toward the distance. 

“Hop up now and bring me the water jug
And check the fertilizer to see what I’ve got left;
Hurry boy, I don’t have all day - Coming Daddy;
It’s gonna rain and I can’t be out here forever.”

His face was burned yet his body held a strength of ancestry,
Of those who came before and struggled for their own;
He worked so that I could leave those rows of dust
To do the things he wanted, but never would.

The tractor turned, he pondered, smiled, hollered to me
“Grandma’s slow but she’s ninety-eight.”;
But he was too young to know the pain and the waste of time,
That he would be out there forever.