Up on the Roof

IMG_1867 (480x640)I’m always tempted by a bargain, but I don’t always read the fine print carefully. So it was that my husband and I found ourselves on a rooftop tour at the Biltmore Estate a few weeks ago: we’re passholders, and January and February offer numerous perks to the season passholder. Turns out that the additional discount for passholders was on the Upstairs-Downstairs Tour, not the Rooftop Tour. Oops!

The nice woman on the passholder line did tell me there was no special passholder discount for the Rooftop Tour before I bought the tickets, but I decided to go for it—mostly because we went on a tour similar to the Upstairs-Downstairs one a few years ago.  The price of $20.00 per person was a little steep (pun intended, I’m afraid), but I was not disappointed in my choice. Viewing the estate from the rooftop is an experience that I heartily recommend, if you don’t mind a little stairclimbing.

 

While the sun quickly disappeared behind some clouds, it wasn’t raining, and the weather was mild for February. Happily, my husband had the day off, so I had company for the tour. Despite February being off-season for the Biltmore, there were at least 10 people in our tour group, which was shepherded up the stairs by an excellent guide.

 

Aside from the breathtaking views of George Vanderbilt’s large estate, I appreciated the opportunity to go into areas that are not on the regular tour, such as the room with a skylight and a winding spiral stair that leads to the viewing platform on the roof. Who knew that the massive iron chandelier, which hangs from the top of the house into the entrance hall, is held in place by a single bolt? I also had no idea that the shingles on the roof were wired on by hand; fear of fire was a motivation here. Perhaps I should have guessed that gold leaf had been used on the roof tiles—truly a sign of the Gilded Age!

 

I enjoyed the Rooftop Tour so much that I’d like to go back with my teenage son: he doesn’t get excited about wallpaper or furniture, but he would enjoy going up on the roof of such a magnificent building. It was fun to see the details not only on the roof tiles but on the gargoyles. Our guide, who shared some facts about George Vanderbilt and the house that even this seasoned veteran of the Biltmore Estate hadn’t heard before, drew our attention to her favorite decorative carving on the exterior: a bear who seems to be eating honey from a pot!

 

Until last fall, I hadn’t realized that financial worries were plaguing George Vanderbilt before his untimely death in 1914 from complications following an appendectomy. In September, my husband, son, and I visited the Cradle of Forestry, the birthplace of America’s first forestry school, which was headed up by Carl Schenck, one-time employee of George Vanderbilt.  Schenck had been hired to replace Gifford Pinchot, Vanderbilt’s original forest consultant, but Vanderbilt and Schenck eventually began to disagree: as I understand it, Vanderbilt needed more income from his vast woodlands than Schenck thought was good for the forests. When my husband and I heard that, we wondered if maybe George was running out of money. Construction costs aside, the Biltmore Estate was not designed with a view to economy—quite the contrary! Maintaining the house was a huge expense, and the reinstatement of income tax in 1913 was just one of several unexpected setbacks for the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

 

A  couple of weeks ago, I started reading Denise Kiernan’s The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home. While the book is rich in historical detail, it’s not a page turner, although I’ve mostly enjoyed the first part of the book. Midway through, I foolishly put down The Last Castle when interlibrary loan provided me with the sequels to Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka. Recently, my son and I listened to O’Hara’s well-known tale about a daydreaming boy who longs for a colt of his own; once I finish Green Grass of Wyoming, I plan to dive back into Kiernan’s possibly unauthorized chronicle of the Asheville Vanderbilts. I say “unauthorized” because we didn’t see a copy of The Last Castle on sale at the Biltmore Estate. Also, I’ve noticed that the letters quoted in Kiernan’s book are from associates of the Vanderbilts such as Edith Wharton, Gifford Pinchot, the wife of architect Richard Morris Hunt, or George’s personal friends William Osgood Field and Paul Leicester Ford. Missing are letters or journals of the Vanderbilts themselves. Hmmm.

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The job of transforming George Vanderbilt’s property into a well-groomed estate with vistas and lakes fell to Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect. Here is a view of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains from one of the balconies.

I get the impression that Kiernan doesn’t have much use for George Vanderbilt himself: “What to do with such a sum [12 to 13 million, with an annual income of about $500,000] when one had not lifted a finger to earn it? This was the enviable dilemma of many in George’s class” (13). Ouch! Kiernan does seem impressed by Edith Dresser Vanderbilt, George’s wife. I admire Edith, too: George’s choice of an intelligent, kind, and practical spouse was perhaps one of his wiser decisions. Still, I have more sympathy for George than Kiernan does. Sure, he could have used his large inheritance in a more compassionate way than in devoting it to the construction of a veritable American castle, complete with grounds, village, and church, but he was a charitable man, for his time.  I, for one, am thankful that he decided to construct what Kiernan describes as “an architectural albatross.”

 

If you’d like more specifics about the Rooftop tour, I recommend seeing it yourself or, if that’s not possible, reading Bob Vila’s account of the Rooftop Tour. My photos don’t do justice to the architecture or the views, but that didn’t stop me from seeking to chronicle our experience with my iPhone.

 

I Need a Little Christmas

P1140041 (640x480)Anyone ever notice how December is overloaded with fun things to do? Christmas concerts, holiday events, office parties, productions of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol—the list goes on and on. Invariably, I miss some things—I haven’t been to view the gingerbread house competition at the Grove Park Inn in years—or I squeeze in too many and overwhelm my family with seasonal outings.

I might even suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) syndrome. As usual, I’m self-diagnosing. Like most of us living in the age of easy information, I did a quick search online and concluded that some of the symptoms seemed to fit. Unfortunately, my desire to experience as much of life as possible can have a negative impact. This week’s crisis resulted from my overcommitting my youngest son: he’s on the MATHCOUNTS team, a basketball team, and an Envirothon team; he plays chess and cello, and he is a Boy Scout. It’s a lot to manage, and sometimes things fall through the cracks.

I still haven’t resolved his latest schedule conflict. Consequently, a dark cloud has been hovering over me this week. Now is the time when I could really use the magic of the North Carolina Arboretum’s Winter Lights display. But we viewed that sparkling spectacle on Christmas Day itself. Christmas Day was the only day that worked for our crowded calendar, so a very cold Christmas evening found five warmly dressed Flemings wondering and wandering through the festive Arboretum. (Two Flemings opted to stay home.)

While the lights were as spectacular as ever, I don’t plan to go on Christmas Day again. Christmas Day felt rushed: Christmas breakfast, stockings, and gifts in the morning; a family game or two in the afternoon while I attempted to roast a turkey without the assistance of my mother or mother-in-law; Christmas dinner with my husband’s parents; and then the visit to the Arboretum. It was just too much. I hope I’ll learn from the experience, but I doubt it. Anne Shirley may have the gift of not making the same mistake twice, but I do not. I always plan to retrench, so to speak, but the lure of that wonderful experience or opportunity gets me every time.

This year, the Arboretum’s lights were wonderful. There’s an irony to the Winter Lights exhibit, in that the beauty of the natural world needs no enhancement. Nonetheless, the addition of artifice to natural beauty makes for a dazzling result. If memory serves me, this is the third year for the Winter Lights show, which is the brainchild of someone who once worked as a Disney Imagineer. Each year, they add more special touches. I’m not sure what the highlight was for me—perhaps the tall Christmas tree’s lights that were synchronized with music? The Quilt Garden’s lights were synced with music as well. It was too cold for us to spend as much time outside as I’d have liked, but I still took pictures (even though that meant taking off my gloves). It was so cold that my son’s phone stopped working briefly, but he was so impressed by the brilliant displays that he uncharacteristically took as many photos as I did.P1140058 (640x480)

Here, without further embellishment (because they need none), are a few photos from the Winter Lights show. If you’d like to see the effect of music added to the lights, you can click on the short videos that I uploaded to YouTube. The price of Winter Lights is a little steep, especially if you have multiple children, but . . . every year, I find myself going back. What can I say? It’s as if Disney comes to us. For a couple of hours, I feel as if I’ve been transported to another world, where all is shining and serene.

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As for the overcommitment crisis, I must “‘trust to Providence, as Mrs. Lynde says.'” My son and I are now listening to the audiobook Anne of Avonlea: it’s not quite as good as Anne of Green Gables, but there is much wisdom mixed in with Anne’s mistakes and whimsies. What would we do without the errors of others to give us hope? Or without the displays of beauty—natural and unnatural—that are to be found all around us, if we but look for them?

Biltmore Does Decorations

IMG_1525 (640x480)A few years ago, my husband and I splurged on season passes to the Biltmore Estate. It’s an easy drive from our house, and we like to walk or bike on the extensive grounds as weather permits. In recent years, the Biltmore has had special costume exhibits—Dressing Downton in 2015, Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film in 2016, and, in 2017, Designed for Drama: Fashion from the Classics. So we keep renewing our passes in November, figuring we’ll regret it if we don’t. Coming in 2018: an exhibit of costumes from Titanic in February and, in the spring, Chihuly glass in Biltmore’s gardens!

My husband had a day off this week, so we gathered the children who were willing to go and went on a daytime tour of the Biltmore. There is also a Candlelight Christmas tour, but it costs extra, even for passholders, and we were already paying for our two college kids, who don’t have passes. The evening tour features musicians performing in various rooms; apparently, a Victorian-style Santa makes an appearance. Still, I was satisfied with strolling through the beautifully decorated mansion while sunlight filtered in through the windows. Happily, someone was playing Christmas music on the organ while we were in the Banquet Hall, which showcases a 35-foot live Frasier fir that is replaced twice during the Christmas season!

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Posing with the lions in front of the Biltmore is a long-standing tradition.

Since I’m really supposed to be shopping today—Christmas is in three days! Yikes!—I’ll go straight to sharing the pictures that I took on Tuesday. Cameras used to be off limits inside the Biltmore House, but perhaps the power of social media changed that ruling. Visitors are now permitted to take non-flash photos inside George Vanderbilt’s mansion. Inveterate shutterbug though I am, I have mixed feelings about taking pictures in the house: inevitably, there is a logjam in the line moving through the rooms as people stop to take pictures. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have these pictures to share with you if pictures were still banned.

In deference to my college son, who claims that as a small child he was dragged through the Biltmore House on numerous occasions, I tried to keep my picture-taking to a minimum. I will tell you, though, that every single bedroom or sitting room had at least one tree, not to mention the garlands and wreaths festooning mantels and doorways. But, at a certain point, I put my iPhone in my purse and tried to leave it there. Here is a tiny glimpse inside the glimmering magic of the Biltmore House in its Christmas glory:

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Since it was a pleasant day, we strolled out onto the Tennis Courts and down to the Conservatory. Then we headed over to Antler Hill Village, which has been gorgeously decorated with lights. On our way, we spotted some deer grazing—not an uncommon sight at the Biltmore Estate.

Fortunately, it was just starting to get dark as we left, so we got a partial experience of the lights at Antler Hill Village at night. Happily, passholders can bring non-passholders onto the Antler Hill part of the Estate after 5 p.m. Maybe we’ll make it back before the holidays are over—but maybe we won’t: we still haven’t seen the Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum or gone to see the gingerbread houses from the annual competition at the Grove Park Inn this year. Asheville is an awesome place at Christmas-time!

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Is There Life after NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo ended November 30, 2017. The good news is that, despite my children coming home for Thanksgiving and my driving to Indiana three times between November 16 and December 2, I finished my novel on time: 52,146 words churned out within the month of November. The bad news is that it was not possible for me to keep writing the novel and writing blog posts: it was a difficult decision, but I dropped my blogs and went with NaNoWriMo.

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Snow on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Now, a month after my last post here, I wonder whether abandoning the blogs was wise. During my first week of abstaining from WordPress, I missed it terribly: like most bloggers, I found myself composing posts in my head that would never make it onto the keyboard. I missed reading other people’s posts and hearing about their lives. But then I lost the blogging rhythm. Three weeks off is all it took. I began to feel distanced from the blogging community. It would be easy to slip away silently, particularly since I am behind on Christmas preparations. Presents? The very word paralyzes me, yet presents for my family must be bought. Should I take a long vacation from blogging again?

Why do we blog, anyway? Each of us has a slightly different answer to that question. My posts are motivated by the desire to share something, with a caveat: whatever I want to express or share requires feedback. Some thoughts can be spilled out into a journal, but other ideas ought to be bounced back and forth, or fleshed out more formally. Aside from sharing what is inside my head, I take and share pictures of the natural beauty that surrounds me. Not surprisingly, when I ceased blogging, I backed off on taking photos. Mid-November isn’t the most photogenic time in western North Carolina, anyway. Fall color had come and mostly gone.

So what brings me back to blogging, half-reluctant, half-shy? Well, I have snow pictures, and those photos cry out to be shared. Yes, Asheville had an unusually heavy December snow last week. The airport’s official snow count was 8 inches, but we measured 11.5” in places! Snow in December usually causes conflicts and cancellations, and this snow was no exception. There were positive aspects: my son and I went sledding, while I enjoyed walking with my daughter and my husband on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which has been closed because of treacherous icy patches. There were two precious days of driving almost nowhere. Quiet. Walks. Beauty. So, yes, I’ve got photos to share, although it snowed so continuously last Friday that I didn’t risk getting my son’s good camera wet.


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And I’ve got a few reflections on NaNoWriMo to share. Winning NaNoWriMo left me feeling less satisfed than I’d expected. Yes, I wrote what technically meets the definition of a novel: “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” I tried to represent character and action realistically, but how difficult I found it! Moving characters from one physical location to another was challenging, and the passage of time baffled me. Not having any plan for where my initial plot was going—I’m a Pantser, in NaNoWriMo lingo—I found myself sticking very closely to my main character for the first several chapters. Where she went, I followed.

In answer to my question as to whether I should report on every emotion my character was experiencing, one of my readers helpfully advised me not to do that. Halfway through, my daughter—who has completed novels via NaNoWriMo’s contest twice before—read me a pep talk from NaNoWriMo in which the suggestion was made to change point of view. That was a life-saving suggestion, since I was tired of viewing the world from my main character’s perspective. I’ll never be good at plotting, I fear, but I found the flashback was an easy way to work in background information. One of the most delightful surprises I encountered was how new characters popped up in unexpected places. With both fear and elation, I let my characters lead me into the next episode of the plot.

For now, I’ve decided not to read through my novel even once until January, when my college kids have gone back to school. In January I tend to feel that nothing good will ever happen again. Once or twice, I’ve been tempted to get the novel out and tweak some inconsistency that occurred in my hurried writing, but I’ve resisted: if I can figure out how to resolve the ticket dilemma now, I can figure it out again in January, can’t I? On my last day of writing, when I churned out 7,101 words, I was tying several threads together so that the book would feel like it had an end. Frankly, I’m terrified of reading those concluding chapters, but, at the same time, I’m intrigued to see whether it hangs together.P1140001 (640x480)

My writing got sloppier as the novel progressed and the deadline drew closer. Near the end of November, someone asked what my first sentence was. When I went back to check, I was disappointed by the brevity and the blandness of my opening sentence: “Waiting.” So much for brilliance. I started my novel with a female character riding a train to a job interview; my confidence was seriously jolted in mid-November when I listened to a children’s audiobook that also opened with a female character riding a train to a job interview. A character on a train is a very obvious beginning for a novel. Ah, well. I’ll wait until January and find out whether what I have written should be shelved as an unsuccessful experiment or maybe—there is just the tiniest chance—edited until it is in good enough shape to be read by someone else. Now I understand why my daughter has never let anyone read either of the novels she wrote.IMG_1348 (480x640)

But I did it! I wrote something fictional. I created characters who took on a semi-autonomous existence and did things that surprised me. The last time I remember writing a story was in junior high, and that story was based on something that had happened to me. Parts of the writing were fun; writing dialogue was always enjoyable, while writing descriptions was often agonizing. Remembering what characters had done in previous chapters or what names I had impulsively given minor characters turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated. It was very difficult not to start editing earlier chapters as I worked, but I tried to resist that temptation: I knew I’d never get done on time if I succumbed. (I’m an inveterate editor.)

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Go out or stay in?

On December 1, I found myself wondering what the point had been. Did my novel have something meaningful to say? Perhaps, in a very minor way. I had wanted to write a children’s book; I spent about an hour trying to write the first chapter of a children’s book. Then I gave up and wrote about a pivotal moment in the life of a youngish person who is trying to get from one day to the next without screwing up her own life or the lives of others. Not exciting. Not deep. Probably not marketable. So much for filthy lucre. Was it worth the minor sacrifices that were involved? I could not have finished, had we not eaten take-out food numerous times during the week after Thanksgiving.

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The Holly and the Ivy

So here’s a shout-out to the family members who left me alone while I typed away furiously, who let me talk to them about my characters and my plot problems. Without their understanding and tolerance I’d have failed. I appreciate the encouraging words of my fellow bloggers and Facebook friends after I posted about my writing challenge. While success has been strangely hollow, failure would have felt worse. Haven’t you worked intensely toward a deadline, thinking, “I’ll be so glad when this is done?” Only I’m not. I feel almost lost without Time’s winged chariot closing in behind me. Writing the novel was lonely, for the most part, and I don’t miss being trapped in a world of my own imagining. I don’t miss the self-doubt or the lack of feedback. But I do miss the feeling of satisfaction from writing my daily quota of NaNoWriMo words. I miss checking my novel’s stats on NaNoWriMo.org. Most of all, I miss the sense of importance I felt while writing: briefly, I felt like Jo March when “genius” burned. I felt like an Author.congratulations writer (640x354)

Trees with a Twist of NaNoWriMo

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North Carolina Arboretum (11/4/2017)

I hope this opening sentence doesn’t make anyone click away, but I’m not quite done posting fall photos. Remember how I’ve taken more than 400 fall photos this fall? I wanted to share a few more. This is likely to be my last “fall photo” post, so please come back if, like my son, you find fall color a bit ho-hum. If you like fall color, this post is dedicated to “Fall Color around Town.” When I couldn’t resist, I would snap a photo or two of a particularly brilliant tree. The reds were remarkable at the end of October; the oranges were slower coming along, but they got there.

Originally, I had thought of doing a series of posts on fall in different locations: fall at the Carl Sandburg House, fall at the Biltmore Estate, fall in the neighborhood—you know the kind of thing. Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo. I delayed it until the first day of November, and I made no plans whatsoever for this novel that I was planning to write. But I did commit to NaNoWriMo, and, much to my astonishment, I am still “in the game.”

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Waynesville, North Carolina (11/2/2017)

What kind of person commits to writing a full-length work of fiction as part of a game? Yet the worldwide count for NaNoWriMo participants in 2016 was a staggering 384,126. Even the language on the NaNoWriMo website speaks of it as a game: “How do I win NaNoWriMo? What are the prizes? Is there an entry fee?” There’s a WikiHow article on how to win NaNoWriMo (I ought to bookmark that). It may be hard for WordPress readers to believe, but there are people who don’t know about NaNoWriMo. I had to explain this writing phenomenon to a woman at my son’s basketball game on Monday. She had never heard of NaNoWriMo, but she was curious as to why I was sitting in my van, typing furiously away on my iPad, during the 30 minutes or so before the basketball game started. (The coach likes players to arrive 45 minutes ahead of time. Thanks to my son’s choice of a less traveled route that GoogleMaps advertised as nine minutes faster, we did arrive 45 minutes early on Monday—which gave me more time for NaNoWriMo.)

To my surprise, she seemed very impressed that I was writing a novel. Were she to read my draft, I suspect she would be less impressed. I find little that is impressive about pursuing this objective: I did it more out of peer pressure than anything else. Last year, my daughter, along with a few of my nieces and nephews, participated in NaNoWriMo. I advised her against it, but she persevered anyway. We have this strange relationship in which she encourages me to do things (some creative, some housekeeping-related) and I discourage her from doing things: she knows I need encouragement, and I know that she tends to overdo. On the whole, I have been helped more by her encouragement than she has by my discouragement—okay, I haven’t seen much improvement in the housekeeping arena, but that has taken on the status of a lost cause, so I am not surprised.

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Biltmore Park (11/3/2017)

She has “won” NaNoWriMo twice, but I have not been allowed to read her novels. This saddens me, as I feel that my gifts really lie more in the editing department than in the creative department. (You won’t be able to tell that from this post, into which I am determined not to put much time, since I am supposed to be busily at work in the housekeeping arena today. A prolonged dentist appointment changed my mind: I felt that I deserved a reward for having an unexpected procedure. What better reward than writing an impromptu post? But the housekeeping needs aren’t going to go away just because I’m ignoring them. The piper must be paid eventually.) My daughter’s novels belong to the potentially lucrative genre of science fiction, and she is a good writer. Maybe one day I’ll persuade her to let me have a look.

Now that I’ve written a third of my own novel, though, I can see why she doesn’t want to let anyone read hers. I am literally making it up as I go along, and I find it difficult to believe that anyone could be edified by a perusal of my 15,881 words to date. Technically, I haven’t quite reached the one-third mark: 50,000 words is the official goal. Here’s the teaser from NaNoWriMo’s site that got me hooked:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.

Three phrases did it:

  1.  “seat-of-your-pants.” I am the original fly-without-an-outline writer. I can make outlines because my high school teachers forced me to, and my writing is better when I do, but I so much prefer to hit the ground running.
  2.  “goal.” I doubt if I would play the piano today if my mom hadn’t offered me the incentive of a new Nancy Drew book if I practiced every day for a month. I cannot seem to successfully meet my own goals, but I have a decent success rate of achieving goals that others set for me. Sad but true.
  3. “anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” My thoughts of writing a novel have mostly been motivated by my desire to earn filthy lucre. I much prefer writing essays, but I never heard of anyone who made money writing essays. (Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’d even make outlines if that would help my essays make a bit of money. I did submit an article speculatively to a magazine back in my college days and received a small sum when the article was printed, but that was a fluke. I tried that blind submission tactic a few times as a new mom and met with rejection.)

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Barn at the Carl Sandburg House (10/14/2017)

But, sure, I’ve thought about writing a novel. I had no idea how difficult novel-writing was until November 1. I lifted a plot from a suggestion a Facebook friend had made and tweaked it a little, but finding ways to advance the plot has not been my problem. My difficulties have been technical. How do I move my character from the commuter train (which I stupidly set in a real location), down the sidewalk, and into the Boston Public Library? (Oops, I gave it away there. Yes, a visit to Boston and its suburbs would help me right now, but there’s that filthy lucre problem that I mentioned earlier.) Do I need to tell every thought she’s having? Every text she’s receiving on her phone? What if the owners of the actual house that I’m writing about have a problem with their address appearing in my novel? I’m getting ahead of myself there and assuming that this assortment of words will be published. Why would it be?

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Asheville, North Carolina (11/5/2017)

Also, I find myself borrowing from every person or situation I’ve ever experienced. I’ve always wondered how novelists manage not to alienate their family members or friends. There is Thomas Wolfe’s well-known example—and he was a resident of Asheville, North Carolina, too! It would be a little too neat if the book that offended people from Wolfe’s past were You Can’t Go Home Again; that book was published posthumously, so it didn’t matter how many folks he offended. Wolfe’s earlier book, Look Homeward, Angel, reportedly resulted in his receiving death threats from residents of Asheville, which he had fictionalized in his novel. As an Asheville transplant, I am aware of the angry local reactions to Wolfe’s novel. Perhaps that’s why I chose Boston and its suburbs instead as the physical setting for my “novel.” (The quotation marks are necessary.) But, oh, how much time I am losing, zooming in on maps of Boston and images from the library, looking up schedules on the MBTA’s website—and all for what? So that I can claim to have won a game at the end of November?

For the moment, I am trying to ignore all the reasons that I shouldn’t keep writing and forcing myself to try to meet the daily quota of words. (Even my encouraging daughter told me that I shouldn’t expect to “win” the game on my first try. I think she’s concerned about the cluttered condition of the house. Or maybe she’s concerned about my sanity.) But, if you see me here on WordPress a little less for the next couple of weeks, you’ll know why.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, if I disappear until December 1!

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East Asheville (10/18/2017)

One-Liner Wednesday: Sports for the Spectator

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You know you’re a mom if you go to the gym three times a week but don’t get enough exercise.


nf-badge-1linerweds-2017This post is part of One-Liner Wednesday, which is hosted each week by Linda G. Hill. To read other one-liners, click on the pingbacks in the comment section of Linda’s post.

I’m still not sure how a basketball picture fits on my blog. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson pointed out. So I tell myself, but I’m not really convinced. If you need me, I’ll be in the gym.

 

So Many Fall Photos, So Little Time

I take too many pictures. This is an indisputable fact. None of my children would quarrel with this statement. If I even start to say the “p” word when I’m on a walk with my older daughter, a frown creases her usually amiable face. Her brothers are more tolerant—two of my sons will obligingly take photos on request if I’m driving or lacking sufficient room on my phone. My younger daughter has a natural eye for a picture—much better than mine—so she’s tolerant of picture-taking, as long as it doesn’t make her late.

If you live in the mountains and you take too many pictures, what happens in the fall? You wind up with way too many pictures. Rekindling my blogs this fall has worsened the situation: I bet I’m not the only person out there who takes photos speculatively, thinking, “Oh, this will make a great blog post” or “I bet my readers would like to see fall at the Biltmore.”

From a statistical point of view, I thought it would be interesting to see just how many pictures I have taken this fall, but that information has proved elusive. I searched for all files in my “Pictures” library taken between 10/1/2017 and 10/31/2017; fall starts on September 22, but the date range proved difficult to set between months. The resulting search showed 713 pictures taken in October alone. However, not all of those photos were unique: I’ve started resizing (or “optimizing,” to use WordPress’s term) photos that I insert in blog posts. At first, I resisted optimizing, but I’m trying to make my storage space last; at least 50 of those files are resized photos. Some photos are scans and have nothing to do with fall color. Other photos are associated with events like my son’s birthday, the Highland Games, or Halloween. Still, my conservative estimate is that I’ve taken at least 400 fall photos this year. Wow. What was I thinking? So much frowning for my daughter cannot be good. (She wasn’t with me on most of my fall-color excursions—fortunately for her.)

Mostly, my photos aren’t that good, either. Occasionally, I’ll get out my son’s DSLR camera, and then—if I can remember how to use it—the photos might turn out well.  Primarily, I take photos for three reasons: 1) to capture the “thrill” of glimpsed beauty; 2) to capture a moment in time; 3) to have fodder for blog posts (sad but true). Occasionally, there’s a fourth, practical reason: to streamline life. It’s quicker to take a picture of a recipe than it is to write down all the ingredients; it’s quicker to take a picture of my insurance card than to copy down the info. And it’s handy to take a picture when I’m choosing between two dresses, particularly if I need fashion advice from my daughters.

I’m borrowing the word “thrill” as a reaction to beauty from L. M. Montgomery’s beloved book about an orphan girl who finds a home on Prince Edward Island. Yesterday my son and I started listening to Anne of Green Gables on our way to his out-of-town basketball game. (Please don’t tell his middle school buddies.) I may have waited too long to share this book with him; he was rolling his eyes occasionally. My eyes, on the other hand, filled with tears as I listened to Anne’s excitement about finding a home at last and to the details of her loveless existence prior to arriving at Green Gables. When I first read Anne of Green Gables, I was a child, so the pathos of her situation was lost on me.

My son came up with one of his one-liners as we were nearing home. We had to pause the book, and I said reassuringly, “You know that she gets to stay, right? After all, it is called, Anne of Green Gables.” His response? “Yeah, I mean, it’s not called Anne of Asylum.” Anne of the Asylum might be a slightly better title, but I see his point. Even Jane Eyre, part of which is set in an asylum for orphaned children, avoids the word “asylum” in its title. Authors have to think about marketing.

I bring up Anne of Green Gables because taking a picture is my instinctive response to the “thrill” that I get when I see a particularly beautiful tree or view or sight. The word “thrill” appears 37 times in Anne of Green Gables! The first time Anne uses the word “thrill,” Matthew is driving her from the Bright River station to Green Gables; Anne sees one beautiful sight after another—apple trees in bloom arching over the road, a lovely pond at sunset:

Below them was a pond, looking almost like a river so long and winding was it. A bridge spanned it midway and from there to its lower end, where an amber-hued belt of sand-hills shut it in from the dark blue gulf beyond, the water was a glory of many shifting hues–the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green, with other elusive tintings for which no name has ever been found. Above the bridge the pond ran up into fringing groves of fir and maple and lay all darkly translucent in their wavering shadows . . .

“That’s Barry’s pond,” said Matthew.

“Oh, I don’t like that name, either. I shall call it–let me see–the Lake of Shining Waters. Yes, that is the right name for it. I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?”

Matthew ruminated.

“Well now, yes. It always kind of gives me a thrill to see them ugly white grubs that spade up in the cucumber beds. I hate the look of them.”

“Oh, I don’t think that can be exactly the same kind of a thrill. Do you think it can? There doesn’t seem to be much connection between grubs and lakes of shining waters, does there?”

Later, Anne uses the word “thrill” to describe how she feels about the poetry in the Fifth Reader, about puffed sleeves, about the upcoming church picnic, about having tea with Ms. Barry, about acting out a romantic scene, and many other experiences. Marilla, a spinster who has had few children in her life, is “thrilled” when Anne kisses her on the cheek. “Thrills” are few and far between as we get older, but the beauties in nature can be counted on to thrill the most stoic among us. Last week, even my oldest son, who describes himself as “not a nature person,” posted a photo of a particularly beautiful Japanese maple on Instagram.

I love Anne’s reaction to some birches she observes while at church one Sunday: “‘There was a long row of white birches hanging over the lake and the sunshine fell down through them, ‘way, ‘way down, deep into the water. Oh, Marilla, it was like a beautiful dream! It gave me a thrill and I just said, “Thank you for it, God,” two or three times.’” Last week, my son and I sang the Doxology in the car as we drove along a particularly beautiful stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It seemed the best way to respond to the “thrill” we felt.

October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.

Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill–several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

Now that it’s November, the brilliant leaves are fading and falling. The austere beauty of winter is insinuating its presence, although a few trees still valiantly fly the red and orange battle flags of fall. Scattered leaves tumble and scurry over the street outside the coffee shop where I’m typing. Winter will be lovely in its barebones way, but there is a thrill in autumn’s glorious colors that I’ll miss.

One-Liner Wednesday: Fall Beauty Overload?

After a slow start, the leaves have turned brilliant. I often drive the Blue Ridge Parkway as I shuttle my son around. Since mid-October, I’ve been gasping in wonder as we round each bend of the parkway. With my hands on the wheel and my eyes mostly on the road, I’ve begged my son to take pictures of the fiery orange, vivid red, or glowing golden leaves. He’s a good sport, so he takes them.

Last week, I oohed and aahed over the leaves as we drove along. My son was silent. I said, “David, don’t you just feel overwhelmed by all this beauty?”

He thought for a minute. “Growing up in Asheville, I’ve been spoiled in fall splendor.”

Here’s a taste of Fall Splendor 2017 (photos taken 10/27/17 at Montreat College):

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nf-badge-1linerweds-2017This is my first stab at the One-Liner Wednesday event, hosted each week by Linda G. Hill. To read the rules—which I’ve bent by including an intro to my son’s one-liner—click here. You can read other “One-Liner Wednesday” posts by clicking on pingbacks in the comments on Linda’s post.

Farewell to a Fish

leaf strewn mereFarewell to a Fish

Oh, Faramir, your lot was clear: to bring us golden bliss.
Six weeks, alas, would scarcely pass ere something went amiss.
We watched you flutter your bright fins and wait upon your food;
My memory of you must not be of your last, darkened mood.

No, let me rather think on days when you were filled with zest
For flakes and bowl, for water clean (you know we did our best).
But, in the end, our wisdom failed: you sickened, and you died.
No healing touch of king had I; yet, Faramir, I tried.

And will we get another fish? But, no, thought cannot bear
To fill your empty bowl so soon: we’ll wait ’til next year’s fair?
For now, the bowl we’ll stow away–the pebbles and the net;
We’ll bury you beneath the clay, but we will not forget.

So, Faramir, float gently down into this leaf-strewn mere:
A final voyage for steward’s son upon a golden bier.

by Sandra Fleming / Copyright @2017

As you will gather from this tribute, our goldfish Faramir, whose arrival was described here and whose exploits were chronicled here, passed away over the weekend. Saturday morning, my son put a Tetra Flake in Faramir’s bowl before leaving to play chess in a Halloween tournament. Fittingly, my son dressed up as Aragorn, who, like Faramir, is a character in J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings; Aragorn is the stalwart Ranger who eventually becomes King of Gondor. My son had named our goldfish Faramir after the younger brother of Boromir, who is part of the Fellowship of the Ring. Boromir and Faramir are the sons of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who rules Minas Tirith in the absence of a king. Boromir, the older brother, dies defending Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers. Later in The Two Towers, Faramir appears and aids Frodo and Sam. In The Return of the King, Faramir is injured; he develops a high fever and is rescued from a funeral pyre by the quick actions of Pippin and Beregond, a guard. Near death, Faramir is saved by Aragorn, who, as King of Gondor, has power to heal.

Aragorn at chess tournament

Is this his Viggo Mortensen face or his don’t-take-my-picture face?

When I came home from taking pictures at the chess tournament, I noticed that Faramir was very still—too still for a fish that has always been active; typically, he swims to the surface when he sees one of us coming with the bright orange container of fish flakes. He did not swim up on Saturday. In fact, he was motionless, and I saw his breakfast flake floating, untouched, in his bowl. Alas, I am no king of Gondor and do not have the power to resuscitate even a goldfish. I changed his water multiple times, tried a salt-water bath, and even massaged him, per the directions that I found online. When my husband and son got home, I asked my husband to try to open Faramir’s gills, which was one of the suggestions, but to no avail. Fortunately, my son had done well at the tournament, winning all his games and tying for a first-place trophy, so he was in good spirits when we broke the news to him.

Even though my son named Faramir, I developed an affection for this foundling of a fish, whom we acquired at the fair. I suspect his sudden death may have been because of a change in the type of water we used? We switched from distilled water to spring water after I read an article that suggested goldfish would benefit from the minerals in spring water. At first, he seemed fine, but we didn’t consistently buy the same brand of spring water. As I’ve subsequently learned, spring water varies greatly, and the Great Value spring water may well have had bacteria or parasites that made Faramir sick. At any rate, he hadn’t been very active for the past few days; when I went to feed him lunch on Saturday, I realized that Faramir was unlikely to ever eat a flake again.

Faramir seems unwell

I took this photo of Faramir on Wednesday, October 25, to document his apparent depression. By Saturday afternoon, he was gone.

A week or so before his death, my sister had half-jokingly shared an article with me about how fish can get depressed. Earlier in the week, Faramir was hanging out at the bottom of the bowl, and I wondered if he was depressed. We didn’t have time to move him to the tank, so we continued our routine—three flakes each day, water change every few days. Here I thought I was doing the best thing for the goldfish in switching to the spring water, but, as I so often do when I look up something on the internet, I quickly read one article and stopped. On Saturday I remembered these apt lines from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism”: “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” The irony of Pope’s warning to avoid “Spring” water was not lost on me.

It rained heavily Saturday afternoon and evening, and we put off dealing with Faramir. On Sunday, my daughter had invited a friend over, so it seemed courteous to remove the fish bowl. Then my husband had a brilliant idea; some of you LOTR (Lord of the Rings) fans might appreciate his suggestion. He said, “Since Faramir was Boromir’s brother, perhaps it would be fitting for him to go over the Falls of Rauros, too?” He was referring to the way that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli had put the fallen Boromir into an elven-made boat, which floated over the Falls of Rauros and down the River Anduin to the sea. Giving Faramir’s namesake a waterfall send-off seemed appropriate. Conveniently, we have a water feature with a tiny waterfall in our back yard—hardly the Falls of Rauros but something.

We went out by the pond—it was very windy yesterday, and we even saw snowflakes. After I read my hastily penned elegy, I quoted Pope’s lines about “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Nothing went as planned. My husband videoed both the reading of the poem and the floating of the leaf, but he kept the camera on me rather than on the fish; also, Faramir fell off the leaf immediately and drifted under the falls. Ultimately, we buried him near the pond. I apologize if this over-the-top funeral for a fish seems macabre, but somehow the pomp and circumstance were helpful. I do miss seeing Faramir swimming eagerly up in his bowl every morning.

At least my son isn’t too sad about Faramir’s death, although he no longer has a pet to work with on his Pet Merit Badge for scouts. He wants a dog, and a fish—even a gallant goldfish like Faramir—proved a poor substitute.

From The Two Towers:

Now they laid Boromir in the middle of the boat that was to bear him away. The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it upon his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilts and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies. Then fastening the prow to the stern of the other boat, they drew him out into the water. They rowed sadly along the shore, and turning into the swift-running channel they passed the green sward of Parth Galen. The steep sides of Tol Brandir were glowing: it was now mid-afternoon. As they went south the fume of Rauros rose and shimmered before them, a haze of gold. The rush and thunder of the falls shook the windless air.

Sorrowfully they cast loose the funeral boat: there Boromir lay, restful, peaceful, gliding upon the bosom of the flowing water. The stream took him while they held their own boat back with their paddles. He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light; and then suddenly it vanished. Rauros roared on unchanging. The River had taken Boromir son of Denethor, and he was not seen again in Minas Tirith, standing as he used to stand upon the White Tower in the morning. But in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past the many mouths of Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars.

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Will Ye Go, Lassie, to the Highland Games?

Monday morning, I woke up with a desire to hear bagpipes. Typically, I’m not the biggest fan of bagpipe music, but I spent Saturday at the Stone Mountain Highland Games, where the playing of the pipes is as much a part of the atmosphere as men wearing kilts and tams. Even after we left the Games, the piping continued at the clan banquet Saturday night and again at the Kirkin’ of the Tartan on Sunday morning. Sunday afternoon, as we drove homeward on the curving mountain roads and gasped at each new display of red, orange, or gold leaves around the bend, my daughter and I listened to an album of bagpipe music. No wonder I’m missing the sound of bagpipes today.

P1110832 (640x480)At any given moment of the Highland Games, at least one person seems to be blowing the pipes: between piping competitions, clan events, and official announcements, the bagpipe’s distinctive voice becomes part of the background noise. Bagpipe music is an acquired taste, and, for the sake of my hearing, I try not to stand too close. But when I hear songs like “Scotland the Brave,” “Highland Cathedral,” or “Amazing Grace” played on the bagpipes, my heart inexplicably rejoices. On Saturday I found myself falling into step and videoing a random band as they marched along the path that weaves through the village of clan tents.

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Clan event? Going to a competition?

On another occasion, as we munched on fish-and-chips and Scotch eggs while watching the caber toss and sheaf throw, I heard a band starting “Scotland the Brave” in the adjoining field. I jumped up, pressed “video” on my phone, and, recording as I went, ran to the field, where a crowd of spectators several people deep blocked my view of the band. It didn’t matter: it was the sound of those pipes and drums that I wanted, and I captured it, even though the video itself is crazily disorienting.

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Sheaf Toss Competition

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Toting a violin around all day is not for the faint of heart.

My daughter and I were attending the Highland Games at Stone Mountain for the second time. Last year, my mother and my nephew came with us. We checked out the clan tents and tried to work out if we were related to anyone, tasted the uniquely Scottish food options (haggis or Irn-Bru, anyone?), and explored the vendor booths. Planning to participate in a Scottish fiddling workshop, my daughter had brought her violin, which she and my nephew took turns playing at the Scottish Fiddling Tent. On Sunday, she impulsively ran the kilted race—it was such a spur-of-the-moment decision that she had to borrow my Nikes—and came in second in the Women’s division. This year, she skipped the kilted race (she needs to acquire a sport kilt for that event; yes, they make such things!), but she brought her violin for the Scottish fiddling competition—the first one held at the Stone Mountain Games in several years.

Jamming at the Scottish Fiddling Tent

Long story short: she won first place in the novice category! Her prize was only a small pin—at the Scottish fiddling competition at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, the first-place winner receives a large plate—but she also gets the bragging rights, which are well deserved. The competition requirements were fairly rigorous: each competitor had to open with an air and, after a pause, play a march, a strathspey, and a reel without a break between the pieces (to hear what she played, click on the links). She could have used sheet music, but memorization was preferred, as was Scottish attire; she owns a kilt in the Munro tartan, so she was in good shape there. While another competitor’s performance might have been more polished, he couldn’t touch her for technique, difficulty, or expression—not that I’m biased! She picked up a few things at the Scottish fiddling camp she attended this summer (on a scholarship from Clan Lindsay). Just before the judging, a lovely couple from Clan Munro showed up to cheer her on.

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Thanking Clan Lindsay for the scholarship

Whether you have Scottish ancestry or not, the Highland Games are an entertaining way to spend a lovely October day. As the Stone Mountain Highland Games website urges, “Don your tartans if you have them and come join us. No tartan? That’s OK too! EVERYONE can be Scottish for this special weekend celebration.” There is so much to see and hear: musical groups like Raven and Red who sing ballads or bands like Rathkeltair or Stonewall who rock the Celtic vibe; highland dancing, piping, and drumming competitions; demonstrations of Scottish weaponry; traditional Scottish athletic competitions such as foot races, hammer throws, and weight tosses. Exhibits on Scottish falconry, spinning and weaving, sheepdogs, and tartans add an educational aspect to the Games. The children’s activities and games always look appealing, and it’s such fun to see pint-sized people decked out in kilts (no pictures, unfortunately, but kilts and clan members come in all shapes and sizes).

This year, I went to my first whisky tasting. Confession: I’d never tried whisky before, so the distinctions between the different ages were lost on me, but I did like the 18-year variety best. Wandering through the craft and vendor booths is always enjoyable, even if I did succumb to the urge to buy a Robert Burns tea towel and a couple of tartan-related items. Later, we enjoyed a well-brewed cup of tea and a lemon bar as we sat at the Scottish harp tent (unfortunately, the harpists were taking a break then, but you can’t have everything).

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Sampling whisky (see the bottles in the lower right?)

Strolling through the large display of clan tartans is also a highlight of the games. The Tartan Forest backs up to the Scottish Country Dancing exhibit, so I was listening to the caller’s cheerful instructions to dancers as I examined the colorful plaids associated with different clans. Last year, I was surprised to learn how many names were Scottish that hadn’t sounded particularly Scottish to my ignorant ears: Bell, Carmichael, Grant, Young. It seems likely that I have Scottish ancestry, since people have Scottish surnames on both sides of my family tree.

IMG_0753 (640x480)My daughter is the first in our family to truly embrace her Scottish heritage, which comes from her father’s side as well as mine. When she and two friends visited the Grandfather Mountain games a few years ago, they were warmly welcomed by one of the clans, regardless of whether she could prove her pedigree. After wearing clan ribbons and marching with the friendly clan in the Parade of Tartans at Grandfather Mountain, she was hooked on the Highland Games. Now, after a second year of experiencing the highlands of Scotland in the heart of Georgia, I may be hooked, too.

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