Category Archives: small town USA

Passing the Penguins

va-assemblyOne of Jack’s favorite movies is Gregory’s Girl, set in a high school in Britain. A recurring joke in the film is the many unexplained vignettes of school life – the headmaster playing honky tonk on a piano during his break; a teacher flinging chalk and ranting about something unheard behind a classroom door; two people in penguin costumes wandering up and down the halls, clearly lost, and everyone who passes them says, in an annoyed tone, “Room 8, hurry up, you’re late, where have you been?” Etc.

Every year I go to Richmond to advocate for rural economic, educational, and health development, done by for and with rural people. I’ve done this trip perhaps eight years now, and while some things change, some things remain the same.

The sheer number of people up on the hill during the 46 days government is in session stays constant, but their costumes change. You round a corner and nearly careen into somebody wearing a VFW hat. People with white canes tap their way past the crowd of kids labeled (mysteriously) “VPT” and the VPTers shrink against the walls to allow them room.

A host of fifty-somethings wearing identical green suit jackets walk by, laughing. And in a line on front of a senator’s door wait women wearing pink and blue fuzzy scarves below their angry faces.

It’s American democracy in real action. People talking to their representatives, telling them what they think, why they think it, what they like done about it. It’s easy, especially now, to be cynical and withdrawn about those men (almost to a man, white men) in suits, but it’s also easy to talk to them. Even when they haven’t wanted to hear what I have to say, they’ve wanted to hear me say it. And most of them have listened with gentleness. I once had a legislator say to me, “I’ve heard that argument before, and I’m still not in agreement with it, but the sheer number of people who express it is beginning to have an effect.”

I asked him what kind of effect, and he grinned. “Sometimes you do what’s right because you know it’s right. And sometimes you do what you don’t think is right because that many people who actually work in the industry might know what’s right better than you.”

Fair enough. All those red hats and green jackets are having an effect. There are still conversations to be had with the guys in the suits, who are listening more than most of us think they are. Yesterday I told one of them why a piece of legislation had failed to help the people it was designed to, because of a small omission of detail it had overlooked in how the industry worked. He looked at me like I’d handed him a fresh cup of coffee.

“We didn’t know that. That makes perfect sense. Why didn’t anyone tell us that?”

I hear that a lot when I’m talking to legislators. They’re waiting for The People to show up and tell them things. Politicians really want to hear from us, despite the convenient apathy despair so often encourages.

“Why didn’t anyone tell us that” covers nuances that change intent in execution; it covers evil masquerading as good; it covers good that missed an important detail. And sometimes it covers BS. Not all conversations with politicians are honest or meaningful, but I’ll take eight out of ten odds any day. That’s how many usually are.

Plus there’s a new feeling on the hill this year: bewilderment. Almost, perhaps, fear. If the rules of the game have changed as much as it looks like they have, then The People have written a new handbook. Like it or lump it, The People elected this president. The People are to be respected, fuzzy scarves, penguin suits and all. Our voices matter and if we don’t like what the voices did this time, best make sure ours are louder next time. Persuasion is an art form not entirely based on TV exposure or the loudest voice in a room.

Perhaps the future belongs to The People who show up for it.

Go to, People. Wear a scarf.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Music hath Charms to soothe – – –

Jack’s Wednesday Blog Post on Thursday –

I’ve been teaching guitar for many years, off and on, mostly pretty informally although occasionally as part of an organized program.

But we do a fair bit of bartering around here, so that’s what I did when our friend Beth’s husband Brandon wanted lessons. He’s Wendy’s Chiropractor and Beth is our very long suffering Veterinarian. So in return for my guitar lessons Wendy gets adjusted!

It’s very interesting to re-live the traumas of tender fingertips and cramped fingers through the experience of pupils, and very hard to connect back to that time in your own life. It’s also so difficult to hold yourself back and try to keep to the pace of the student and not force them too far too quickly.

What helps in this case is that Brandon happens to have a very nice well set up guitar. There’s nothing more dispiriting than trying to learn on a hard to play instrument. Where Brandon’s existing knowledge departs from mine is that while he reads music he has taught himself to play piano by ear.

So, in this case it’s really just a case of memorizing a series of chord shapes then practicing until the fingers get used to their positions. I generally start people off with the A and E chords then pick a well known tune that only uses those chords, such as ‘He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands’. The first exercise is just to slowly hum the tune while changing between the chords at the appropriate places. That’s a good way to get used to how the sound of the chords underpins the melody.

In between times and just add a bit of variety I like to do some work on posture and how the guitar should be held and positioned as well as checking the tuning of each string either with a tuner or using the ‘5th fret method’.

Of course the real work is being done by Brandon in between lessons – that’s how he will get the fingers toughened up, and trained to move easily between the chords. I always love to see the progress from one week to the next and that’s a great delight.

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Filed under folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized

Baby Worries a Little Bit

Hi, I’m Baby. No, go ahebabyad; I’ll wait while you sing the lyrics of the pop tune going through your head. Really, it’s fine; I’m used to it.

Now then, thank you for the serenade but I really don’t feel like singing right now. My whole world appears to be tilting and I’m just so concerned. My housekeeping staff are getting older, and lately she’s been very unwell. He spends a lot of time tending to her, and the other day didn’t he come out of her room, scoop me up in his arms, and cry all over me? He said something like. “Baby, we love you and we’re going to make sure you’re okay.”

Well if that doesn’t frighten a body…..

They are very nice housekeepers and I’ve grown quite fond of them over the years. I’ve never had any other staff; they brought me here when I was literally a baby, and we’ve been together ever since. They understand my little needs and habitues, such as what time second breakfast should be, and how to draw the blinds to angle that afternoon sunbeam precisely onto the sofa cushion.

We like to watch cooking shows together, and until recently she and I never missed One Life to Live. Now, though, she spends her time in the bedroom, and my personal bed has been moved next to the sofa. It’s all clear to me; I shall soon have to move. That’s what he meant.

One does what one must, but I can’t tell you the conflicting emotions running through my mind at this moment. Will they be all right without me? Who will wake them up in the morning, ensure she doesn’t miss an important episode, see that he makes their evening meal on time? (He always made theirs right after mine.)

Also, although one doesn’t wish to appear selfish, who will look after me, since I must leave here? Where am I going? Will it be quiet, will it be warm? Will they be kind to me? I realize some of my little perks may have to fall by the wayside, but if one has to contemplate hardship, there’s a difference between no sunbeams and no supper.

Really, I don’t show it to the staff, but I’m very concerned. I hope the best for them, but whatever is to become of me? Being a white cat makes me “desirable,” she said the other day. Well, yes, thank you, of course. But will that be sufficient? I just don’t know….

Baby is available for adoption through Appalachian Feline Friends. Message them or Willie Dalton for information. She is six years old, spayed, and utd on all shots. She prefers a quiet life with multiple meals and no expectations of entertaining children or controlling mice.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, what's on your bedside table

Through Hardship to the Stars

Jack’s Wednesday guest post –

I know that a New Year is meant to be a time of hope and new beginnings. But I look at the incoming year with great foreboding. In the US and Europe reactionary forces are on the march and the progressive ideals with which I was brought up are being marginalized and are on the defensive.

For some reason this poem by Yeats comes to mind –

THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

Per ardua ad astra? Time to mount the barricades perhaps – – –

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Couples in Triplicate

couples-blogJack and I joined two other couples for a weekend in Asheville, to celebrate the end of 2016 (which has been a real mixed bag for all of us) and the wine-and-laughter-soaked start of 2017 with its blank calendar squares of hope.

It is fun to watch three couples interact with others while being their two-unit selves. You have the individual; you have the couple; and you have the team. Sometimes the difference between any of these borders is blurry; at other times they can be uncomfortably non-opaque.

One person forgot essential meds; another dropped a bag that held a bottle of hard-to-get wine, shattering it and soaking some rather delicate Christmas gifts in alcohol – sadly, not an improvement in this case. Spouses tend to be harder on internal errors than anyone else, yet protective of those who make them. It is okay for one of two to say “you idiot,” but not anyone else. Not that anyone else would, you know, because what makes us exhausted inside couples is no big deal outside. It’s all new; it’s all good.

There’s a quote about marriage that says partners are like the blades in scissors, always moving separately and even in different directions, yet always working together and quite capable of punishing anything that comes between them. I think of that quote often watching sets of two:one interact with larger numbers.

Perhaps it’s like reversing those long algebra equations where you’re meant to prioritize the relationships inside the brackets first; fail that, and your mathematical answer will be wrong. But in human interaction, outside the brackets we add up grace, empathy, and laughing first, so that the sum of the parts becomes simple and fun and gestalt. Inside the brackets where the math can be tighter and more complex, maybe you’re tired of talking it over, had it with being the spouse who looks after things. But as you walk down the street in your big group of giggling friends, your spouse reaches for your hand, or tuck yours into the crook of his arm, and the rest dissolves. It’s all right.

Because marriages, like friendship weekends at New Year’s, celebrate not just the hopes to come, but the good and bad past memories that shaped the brackets you live in and made you the happy two:one you are.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: THE DOG MERCHANTS by Kim Kavin

dog-merchantsKavin wrote Little Boy Blue, the story of acquiring her puppy and tracing his trail from her house back to how he became a rescue dog. I could not bring myself to read this book for a long time, and I’m still inching my way through it. It is not for the faint of heart.

But Kavin’s journalistic style is well-suited to the one-step-removed-personally nature of THE DOG MERCHANTS, which investigates the big business of dogs in breeding, buying, and rescue. Yes, rescues can be big businesses. In fact, big businesses pit some rescuers against breeders in order to ensure dogs are big business. That’s just one of the many stories Kavin uncovers in her research.

Kavin’s style of writing, like that of any good journalist, disappears inside her subject. A book one reads for the information it contains rather than its fine writing, Kavin nevertheless is a fine writer. So good that she gets out of the way and lets her story tell itself.

One reviewer said DOG MERCHANTS would become The Omnivore’s Dilemma for pet lovers. This is pretty apt; if you read this book, you’re going to look at your puppy, and your friends’ puppies, the same way you started looking at diamond wedding rings – yours or anyone else’s – once Blood Diamonds had enough publicity.

But this book is not all doom and gloom and “you don’t want to know” voyeurism. Kavin lays out some compelling arguments for how to make things better, and some hopeful stories of how they are becoming so. More for information than entertainment, THE DOG MERCHANTS will leave you changed. Educated. Perhaps even motivated for more change.

I don’t often warn people off reading books, but I will tell you, you might not want to read this one unless you’re ready. The mysteries of dog business are deep and ugly. Be prepared to become the person others edge away from at parties. The next time you ask a friend where they got their dog, you might mean something different.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The (w)Rites of Laundry

laundryIn a fit of pique, or perhaps inspiration, I have reduced my clothing to one five-drawer dresser, one half of a hanging wardrobe, and a milk crate (underwear; no need to fold, just reach in there and grab what ya need).

Sick of trying to “stay organized” I reckoned up just how much of my writing time was ebbing away via clothes management, including but not limited to: laundry, what passes for folding at our place, stuffing things into drawers, and finding items when I needed that certain turtleneck or some such.

A lot of time got devoted to this. No. No no no. I’m working hard on my next book, and laundry doesn’t factor in.

The problem with that is, Jack and I tend to wear clothes until you can hold them up to the light and read through them. Things with holes go over contrasting colors for that special layered look. The trousers that feel comfy get worn ad infinitim (cotton ones with drawstring waists, to the chagrin of my fashion conscious friends who have to go out in public with me dressed like that). The smart, tailored ones get stuck at the bottom of the drawer. Now that I’ve reduced to one dresser, I’m gonna have to start wearing the slick ones with buttons. Sigh.

It’s a fair trade. I’m busy, and managing clothing over-consumption doesn’t factor in this year. Of course, there are moments.  Jack and I did a book club in Abingdon last week, arrived early at the rendezvous, and went to the thrift store at the end of the parking lot. I came out with a sweater.

It was a really nice sweater, hand knit, 100% cotton from Peru……

Anyway, my New Year’s Resolution: the little stuff is not gonna fritter time away from the big stuff, and a woman who wears elastic waist trousers under her hand knit thrift store sweaters can freely admit that clothes are little stuff. Avaunt, away, ye loads of brights, darks, and whites. Color my world with metaphor, allegory, and using just the right gerund.

Merry Christmas to all and to all Tidy Whites!

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, home improvements, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch