Appreciation

Go Blue Devils!Throwback Thursday on Facebook is the day when you post pictures of yourself from days of yore; You know, back when you had hair, a figure, teeth, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo for today’s TBT. I have, however, included an image of the HHS mascot as well as a somewhat more modern version of today’s subject.

The Old Hopewell High School

I attended the old high school for 8th & 9th grades. We moved to the new High School in 1967. Some folks refer to the old HHS as James E. Mallonee. Although I will agree that this was the name of its final educational incarnation, it was HHS much longer than it was JEM and thus, I will refer to it by the former title.

The Old Coke Machine

In the cafeteria, which was on the floor below the auditorium, there stood an old-fashioned Coke machine. You’d put your hard-earned money in the slot, a paper cup would drop in to the vending area, and Coke would be dispensed into the cup. Sounds simple, right?

During 9th grade, the coke machine saw that the end was in sight and had a nervous breakdown. Some of the behaviours  it exhibited were as follows:

  • You’d put your money in the slot, a cup would come down but the Coke would never show up.
  • A cup would come down and enough coke to keep three students buzzed until school let out, would fill the cup with the overflow disappearing into the bowels of the device.
  • The cup wouldn’t make an appearance but the coke still arrived on time.
  • The cup would show up and the Coke would dispense but not in that order.
  • The machine would drop cup after cup after cup. This would often happen at random intervals without anyone depositing their money.
  • Then, there were the times when the machine would dispense Coke, sans cup & sans money.
  • Every once in a while, you’d get lucky and the machine would dispense the right  amount of coke into a single cup before you could even pull the money out of your pocket.

The New Hopewell High School

HHS Coke MachineWhen we made the move to the new high school, the old Coke machine stayed behind. One can only assume that it went to a retirement home for old vending machines – commonly known as a junk yard. There is a slight possibility that they took the machine out behind the gym and . . . well, you remember Old Yeller, don’t you?

There was a new Coke machine waiting for us in the cafeteria which did not exhibit the rowdy behaviour of its predecessor. None the less, it had a few idiosyncrasies of its own. This machine didn’t hang around very long and was eventually replaced by a machine which provided Coke in cans.

Somehow, I made it through round 1 of fruitcake production relatively unscathed. I burned my left thumb sliding the loaves into the (hot) oven and somehow acquired a small cut on my right pinkie. Even my back behaved – for once.

I mentioned the paucity of mixing bowls in an earlier post but I did all right with the assortment of pots and bowls I did have on hand. The only negative was discovering that the beaters that go with the mixer in Mom’s kitchen had been abducted by aliens. This meant I had to use an old-fashioned egg-beater and well as a wooden spoon and a good bit of muscle.

I’ll try to rectify the equipment shortage whilst I’m home for Thanxgiving. Round 2 of fruitcake fever takes place on Tuesday or Wednesday night of the following week. I’m saving the gingerbread cookies for when I’m home for the holidaze.

On tap for tonight, I gently remove the loaves from their pans, warp them in paper cloths soaked in cream sherry, and let the curing begin. I’ll refresh the cloths the next two Monday evenings and this batch will be ready to ship.

I used to soak them in Golden Sherry but that has become almost impossible to find.

ser·en·dip·i·ty

ˌserənˈdipədē/

noun

  1. the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

“a fortunate stroke of serendipity”

synonyms: (happy) chance, (happy) accident, fluke;

We’ve all had them; those chance encounters and occurrences. Things like ducking into a book shop in search of a quick read and discovering a fantastic author whom will be the only entry on your ‘Desert Island’  book list. Or how about happening to glance up in the college cafeteria and noticing this girl walking past your table. Four years later, she’ll become your wife.

I have my clock radio set to come on at 6:00 every morning and since I ought to be up and – eventually – doing things, I don’t switch it off at the week-end. It’s permanently set to the NPR station in Richmond, VA so I get an hour of Morning Edition Monday thru  Friday. On Saturday mornings, they play classical music. On this particular morning, I was treated to The Blue Danube Waltz. I can’t think of a better way to wake up except for . . . well, she’s at her mother’s this weekend anyway.

B-17E in flight

B-17E in flight

We’ve all seen something like this in the adverts for retirement planning on TV. A guy calls time on his career, is given the golden handshake and with a little bit of help from Cialis, departs to sail around the world or swans off to some swinging retirement community where most of the residents seem to be 50 years old at the most. My own vision is somewhat different. For the past six or seven years, I’ve pictured myself and my career as a B-17 Flying Fortress returning from a mission over Germany. The tail looks like a giant piece of Swiss Cheese. The controls are sluggish. The crew is still alive, but only just. Two engines are dead. The third one coughs, sputters and threatens to pack up half-way across the English Channel. There’s only one engine left to carry the plane and its crew to land in that hay field just past Dover’s white cliffs and even that engine is starting to act a mite peaky. It looks like I’m going to fall far short of that hay field.

The above imagery is more than enough to peg me as a ‘Boomer.

My unemployment benefits ran out at the end of August and I had planned to file for Social Security when I returned from our annual week at Virginia Beach. There had been a few interviews over the summer but all but one were nothing to write home about. Despite all the sincere promises to contact me no matter what decision was made, the phone had not exactly been ringing off the hook. Time for me to call it a career and devote myself writing novels.

A funny thing happened whilst on holiday. Judi & I had just returned from dinner at our favourite Virginia Beach restaurant and I fired up the iPad to check e-mail before parking myself on our balcony with a wee dram of single malt. It was the usual stuff; adverts, Twitter & Goodreads notices and a message from someone who had been trying to contact me about a job I’d applied for. I replied to said e-mail advising them of my present availability – or lack thereof – and repaired to the aforementioned balcony. I didn’t even mention this to Judi until around noon the following day.

For once, the cavalry was indeed just on the other side of the hill. On Monday, a company called Dematic offered me a position as a software engineer at a very comfortable rate of compensation. The only – minor – drawback was that the position was not in Charlottesville. It was to be on the south side of Richmond, VA and so I will come full circle and return to where I began my career in Information Technology as a computer operator back when 256 K was a heck of a lot of memory.

After a whirlwind week of form-filling, background checks and drugs tests – I correctly identified Viagra, Abilify and Enzite – I depart for Hopewell, VA tomorrow evening to return to my boyhood home and ancestral estate. I’ll be spending four or five nights a week there and returning to Charlottesville on Friday evenings. It’s not an ideal situation but the security is worth it. I look on this as a Win-Win-Win situation. I have money coming in once again, the historic family home is occupied once again – more or less – full time and Judi gets me out from being under foot.

As for my clients, I will still be available on weekends and on weekday evenings. The sequel to Urban Mermaid will continue to be developed and if my own cooking doesn’t kill me, I may even loose a few pounds. My reviews of Heather Rigney’s Waking the Merrow and Emm Cole’s The Short Life of Sparrows will be finished and published. Responses to e-mail, tweets and Facebook postings will continue albeit during a restricted time-frame.

I would like to thank my lovely wife for letting me off the leash, my father for finally caving into Mom and buying the house on Oakwood Ave. 56 years ago and my mother for carrying on the tradition amongst Tench women whereby their home is their castle and not to be sold for a quick buck or two.

You know, I just MIGHT make it to that hay field after all.

Mildred - Our Merry Mermaid Christmas Mascot

Happy Christmas!

This retro Christmas Mermaid was created by Rosie Scanlon. Click the image to learn how you can can buy a copy!

This retro Christmas Mermaid was created by Rosie Scanlon.

This past Sunday was an outstanding example of a fall day here in central Virginia; sunny, not too warm, not too cool. In other words, it was the perfect day to attend the Central Virginia Highland Games and Celtic Festival. This event has returned to the old State Fair grounds near Mechanicsville after following the State Fair up to its new home near Doswell, VA. (I’m going to skip relating the soap opera that was Atlantic Rural Expositions & its departure from Strawberry Hill.)

My wife & I locked up the house in Hopewell and drove up to Richmond dressed in traditional Scottish-American attire: I wore a kilt & she wore slacks – cargo pants to be exact. This jaunt was a bit strange for us as it was the first time in five years that we’ve attended one of these events and we were not hosting a clan tent. Back in the auld days, we – or at least I – attended 3 to 5 of these things a year, loading up the truck or the car with everything we needed to represent Clan Macpherson and/or Clan Grant and then driving off on Fri. evening or Saturday morning to wherever we were supposed to be.

The recession of ’08 had a lot of side-effects and one of them was a mortal blow to a number of these events. Highland games depend upon the fees garnered from Clan societies and vendors as well as proceeds from the gate in order to stay afloat. In the case of the small to medium-sized events, putting them on is a labour of love mostly and if they break even, it’s a good year. Nonetheless, it is all a house of cards. The public won’t come if the Clan Societies and vendors aren’t there and if the public is not going to turn out, then the vendors don’t want the hassle of paying the necessary fees and setting up shop. It’s the same way with the Clan Societies. Most of the tents are funded by the people who host them and are thus even more sensitive to disappointing turn-outs. If there is little or no chance of recruiting new members then why shell out the $$ and loading up the car/truck when you could be home watching football.

People lost jobs during the recession and the extras that made life fun – like attending Highland games – were curtailed or eliminated altogether. The folks who loaded up their cars couldn’t afford to do so anymore which brings me back to our day at the Central Virginia games. The Clan tents were there but fewer than 5 years ago. The vendors were there though not quite as many as before. The crowds were fairly decent but we only saw a handful – and a wee handful at that – of people from before the recession. Some, of course, had reached that certain age when it was time to stop doing stuff like this while others may have relocated, but the rest . . .

What I can report is that we had a fairly good time that afternoon. We got to hear “Oh Shenandoah” on the pipes which is second in chills-up-the-spine only to “Highland Cathedral” and saw an athlete hit a perfect 12 o’clock with a tossed caber. The only downside was the poor excuse for a meat pie that I was forced to endure. And when we had our fill of the festivities, we simply walked out to our car & drove home instead of having to wait until 5:00 or 6:00 before we could pack everything up and then hit the road.

One would think that in this age of e-mail, blogs, self-publishing, dictation software, spell-checkers, grammar-checkers and other modern marvels that we would readily find copious examples of good writing. Sadly, that is not the case and good writing seems to be on the wane. I’m not talking here about your Faulkners, Fitzgeralds, Hemmingways, Steinbecks, Waughs, et al. Instead, I’m speaking about every-day good writing; the kind that you see – or at least used to see – in stories, novels, papers, etc. This does not mean that there isn’t good writing out there; it’s just harder to find nowadays.

There are many things that could be used to define good writing: Quality, Grammar use, Structure, and more though that is not the aim of this essay. To narrow our focus, we’re going to talk about fiction. Even with that limitation in place, there’s still a lot to consider. Here is what the award-winning writer, Jim Parsons – No, not THAT Jim Parsons! – has to say on the subject:

“It’s going to depend on what it is, where it appears, intended audience, etc. What would be considered quality writing for, say a newspaper story, might not be the same for a television script or a children’s story. In books, it’d be hard to compare Mark Twain with James Blish (who wrote the Star Trek paperbacks), though each did what he intended to do very well.”

Since Young and Not-So-Young Adult fantasy has been the subject of most of the reviews here on The Parsons’ Rant, we’re going to narrow our focus even more to consider the fantasy genre. When asked, Jim Parsons said:

I’d guess J.R.R.’s trilogy is the gold standard (just like Harvard Lampoon’s version was for parody), although it might’ve been a bit long. But all the elements fit together, it was well crafted and delivered, and at the end, you just said ‘’wow.’’ I’m not sure that Harry Potter would count, as that’s sort of “pop fantasy” vs. “pure fantasy.” Obviously a different style than JRR, but again JK’s approach and execution were very effective.”

Well-crafted and delivered. Effective approach and execution. A “wow” factor. There are other identifying traits, of course, but Jim has elucidated three very important ones. In conclusion, he tells us:

” . . . the most eloquent writing ever will fall flat if there’s no message that connects with the audience. Similarly, a great story can be lost if the writer doesn’t know how to put sentences together. It’s all about balance.”

Below are three separate passages from three separate authors which exhibit most – if not all – of the properties mentioned above. They also exhibit one or more of the other factors that I consider to be important.

The first passage certainly has a “Wow” factor to it. In addition, it conveys feeling and emotion and makes them a tangible item that you almost want to inhale. It is one of the “hottest” passages I have ever read. Please note that there is a distinct difference between “hot” and “steamy”. The latter usually leads to a (very) cold shower.[[1]] By “hot”, I meant that it’s heat enters in to you and radiates throughout your very being. It is not unlike the motto of the Scottish Clan Mackenzie – and Glen Ord single malt:

Luceo Non Uro – I shine, not burn

This passage literally glows, its heat converted to a lambent light that fills you with a sense of “Wow”.

“This time, when the sweet pull came for Tatiana’s soul, she allowed herself to be free and afterward, the connection was so much deeper than anything she could have imagined. Her soul exploded into a song filled with all the goodness that was him. And everything about him felt right. To hold him close, to be with him, to treasure him for all eternity, she could think of nothing else, completely engulfed in his love.” – Brenda Pandos, Everlost

Feeling. Emotion. Wow! The passage comes from Everlost, the third installment in Brenda’s Mer Tales series for Young Adults. Inasmuch as the series is firmly planted in the YA genre, there is a distinct limit to the sensuality and sexuality to be found within those pages. Yet, that passage leaves the reader even more breathless than most adult fiction.

Our next passage will surely show that its author knows how to put sentences together. It is very well-crafted and delivered and it conveys a sense of purpose, a sense of inspiration. If you were not on board at the start of this speech, you definitely are at its conclusion.

“I have been imprisoned here a long time, Abby. These years in your world have made me tired and weak. But I have learned a great many things in that time. One is that I should trust in my dreams, and I have seen that this time we will win. The other thing I have learned is that even when I was in my lowest, most desperate state in this place, the universe has provided for me. It is when things seem impossible that miracles happen.” – Melissa Eskue Ousley, Sign of the Throne

In this short but moving passage, one can almost hear the echoes of the Agincourt speech{{2}} in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Sign of the Throne is one of the most well-written stories that I have had the privilege to review and is an absolute joy to read. If nothing else, I hope that Ms Ousley’s target audience will take away an idea of what good writing – as opposed to texting – really is.

Our final passage is by the author of the adult fantasy novel, The Marked Ones{{3}}, and does not come from the novel itself. Instead, it is a short blog entry by Samantha K. Munt and it is included here to show that good writing is transcendent; it crosses all barriers – both natural and artificial – in the delivery of its message.

“I just went and laid next to my husband for a moment and spooned him, pressed my head into his shoulder and tried to let my guard down and the tears fall. I was almost there-my nose was tingling, my eyes were welling and I was completely feeling sorry for myself. I haven’t slept in three weeks. It’s been all about the book. A roller coaster ride on which I’m clinging to with nail polish that is chipped for the first time in my life. Everything I thought I cared about, every passion I’ve ever undertaken and conquered-doesn’t compare to the ache of uploading your soul to the internet for judgment by others.

But before the first tear could spill, I heard what hubby was listening to-Twilight Eyes, by Dean Koontz, playing in audio format on his iPhone while he slept. My favourite book of all time.

And then I remembered why I’m doing this, and what height I aspire to rise to. And how all I want of this industry is love. Then I remembered the message I got two days ago from a fan who wrote to me, what I’d write to Koontz if I believed he could ever read it.

And I kissed my lovely husband on his bristly cheek, and got out of bed, back to my study with its broken chair, where the winter wind is freezing me off the Pacific through the window. Back where I belong.” – S.K. Munt, Why I didn’t go to sleep

I remember – which really dates me – the series of dramatized key events in American and World history, hosted by Walter Cronkite, called You Are There. I am an older guy living on the east coast of North America and Ms Munt is a 30-year old mother of three from Queensland, Australia. And yet, because of this outstanding bit of writing, I believe that I am indeed there and get a sense of how she is feeling, her motivations and what she is going through. This simple blog post has a “Wow” factor all its own and transcends age, gender, and geography. If Ms Munt can write like this in a blog post, you can imagine what her stories are like.

These three authors have several things in common: Their books have been or will be reviewed here on The Parsons Rant and each of them are or will be the subject of a 20 Questions Interview as well. I hope that you will take the time to read the reviews, read the interviews and by all means read their books, all of which are examples of very good writing.

[[1]]For a better understanding of this, read the “Boat” scene from The Marked Ones[[1]]

[[2]]This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. – William Shakespeare, Henry V[2]]

[[3]]It must be noted that The Marked Ones does NOT fall into the YA (Young Adult) genre. The story is more intended for adults and those in the New Adult age bracket.[[3]]

Boy was it hot! I believe that my brother told me it was over 100 degrees that day. I know that it felt like it in the church!

Judi arriving at the church

Judi arriving at the church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somehow we all managed to survive it!

The wedding party

The wedding party

Our first dance.

Our first dance.

And I’ll never forget this moment as long as I live . . . no matter how much single-malt I consume. Smile

The only thing I want to know is: What happened to the skinny dude in the blue suit???

True Facts: Judi’s bridal portrait was finally taken 10 years after the event. The gown still fit!

NB — These photos need a bit of cleaning up. In due course, I plan to create a gallery with a selection of of photos from our album – now that we’ve finally found it – over this winter. I’m not expecting the world to beat an electronic path to my door; just a bit of fun, actually.

Somewhere around 5th or 6th grade, I remember doing a report on this poem by James Thomas Fields. There are those males amongst us whose only exposure to barbering is Fantastic Sam’s, Super Cuts or the stylist at the mall will be gob-smacked at the idea of the old time barber shoppe being a bastion of masculinity with stuffed hunting trophies, etc. adorning the walls. Toss in cigar smoke, a copy of The Police Gazette and you were in business.

The Owl Critic

“Who stuffed that white owl?”

No one spoke in the shop,
The barber was busy, and he couldn’t stop;
The customers, waiting their turns, were all reading
The “Daily,” the “Herald,” the “Post,” little heeding
The young man who blurted out such a blunt question;
Not one raised a head, or even made a suggestion;
And the barber kept on shaving.

“Don’t you see, Mr. Brown,”
Cried the youth, with a frown,
“How wrong the whole thing is,
How preposterous each wing is,
How flattened the head is, how jammed down the neck is —
In short, the whole owl, what an ignorant wreck ‘t is!
I make no apology;
I’ve learned owl-eology.

I’ve passed days and nights in a hundred collections,
And cannot be blinded to any deflections
Arising from unskilful fingers that fail
To stuff a bird right, from his beak to his tail.
Mister Brown! Mr. Brown!
Do take that bird down,
Or you’ll soon be the laughingstock all over town!”
And the barber kept on shaving.

“I’ve studied owls,
And other night-fowls,
And I tell you
What I know to be true;
An owl cannot roost
With his limbs so unloosed;
No owl in this world
Ever had his claws curled,
Ever had his legs slanted,
Ever had his bill canted,
Ever had his neck screwed
Into that attitude.
He cant do it, because
‘Tis against all bird-laws.

Anatomy teaches,
Ornithology preaches,
An owl has a toe
That can’t turn out so!
I’ve made the white owl my study for years,
And to see such a job almost moves me to tears!
Mr. Brown, I’m amazed
You should be so gone crazed
As to put up a bird
In that posture absurd!
To look at that owl really brings on a dizziness;
The man who stuffed him don’t half know his business!”
And the barber kept shaving.

“Examine those eyes
I’m filled with surprise
Taxidermists should pass
Off on you such poor glass;
So unnatural they seem
They’d make Audubon scream,
And John Burroughs laugh
To encounter such chaff.
Do take that bird down;
Have him stuffed again, Brown!”
And the barber kept on shaving!

“With some sawdust and bark
I could stuff in the dark
An owl better than that.
I could make an old hat
Look more like an owl
Than that horrid fowl,
Stuck up there so stiff like a side of coarse leather.
In fact, about him there’s not one natural feather.”

Just then, with a wink and a sly normal lurch,
The owl, very gravely, got down from his perch,
Walked around, and regarded his fault-finding critic
(Who thought he was stuffed) with a glance analytic,
And then fairly hooted, as if he should say:
“Your learning’s at fault this time, anyway:
Don’t waste it again on a live bird, I pray.
I’m an owl; you’re another. Sir Critic, good day!”
And the barber kept on shaving.

James Thomas Fields

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