BOONE, N.C. (Aug. 20, 2019) – Right now I’m sitting in the lobby of the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University, and I’m wondering why I don’t know beans—or, rather, about growing beans. The rabbits keep getting them at both of our houses, in town and in the country.
Henry D. Thoreau, a hoer with a heart of gold and the humor of iron pyrite, wrote in Walden; or, Life in the Woods: “I am determined to know beans.” And in the two years, two months and two days of his experiment in living deliberately at Walden Pond in the mid-1840s, he did learn much about growing beans, but mainly that it was a lot of hard work just to feed the rabbits, woodchucks and other rodents.
BOONE, N.C. (Aug. 18, 2019) — Thrift always reminds me of the woman who made me want to tell stories—thrift the flower, not the prudent use of money.
If she were alive today, Grandmother Duckworth would get a laugh out of that sentence, not because I’m giving her credit for inspiring me to be a writer, but because, in her country way of saying things, “telling stories” meant you were telling lies.
One summer when I lived with her, she asked me more than once if I was “telling [her] a story” about where I’d been or whom I’d been with after I’d gotten home late from work. “Honest, Grandmother,” I’d say, “I wasn’t with anybody. I stopped at Western Piedmont to shoot some basketball—by myself.”
MORGANTON, N.C. (Aug. 16, 2019) – When the preacher prompted me to promise, “For richer or poorer,” almost 37 years ago, he wasn’t kidding.
Ever since we retired three years ago, we’ve been cutting back on just about everything, learning to do without many of the things we had taken for granted during our working lives when regular paychecks were coming in.
It used to be that I didn’t even bother balancing our checkbook; I just glanced at the account balance whenever I hit the ATM for cash. If that balance was within a few hundred dollars of what I thought it should be, I wasn’t worried.
Right now, some of you are horrified. How could I have been so blasé about our personal finances? Others of you are asking, “What’s a checkbook? And how do you balance it?”
Well, now I balance our checkbook (a rectangular, pocket-sized, plastic- or leather-covered pad of printed bank forms that are filled out by an authorized account holder and traded for goods or services in lieu of cash). When the monthly bank statement arrives in the mail—yes, the old-fashioned way, not on a smartphone app—I go over it in detail to make sure everything agrees, at least to the dollar.
MORGANTON, N.C. (Aug. 14, 2019) – In all likelihood, this will be the last book-length manuscript that I write—that is, if I manage to finish it by the end of next summer, my goal. Based on all the times I’ve tried to start this thing over the past three years but have been waylaid—or, even worse, laid low—by this and that, don’t be surprised if I get hit by a bread truck between now and, say, Labor Day 2020.
Why a bread truck? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I spent the first years of my adulthood in Valdese, where the boxy orange delivery trucks of Waldensian Bakeries were flashier than all those damn brown Buicks and metallic-blue Fords favored by bakery employees. That shiny Sunbeam fleet with the cute, blond-haired, gluten-glorifying girl on their side panels must have made a big impression on me. But if bread bothers you, substitute milk or beer or whatever else you can tolerate being loaded into a truck and delivered over the road, that could then run over a guy with my kind of luck. Man can live and die by many things other than bread alone.
We all know it’s coming. Sooner or later, a mass shooting will come to our town — to our school, our college, our worship center, our movie theater, our concert venue, our park, our store, our workplace.
And there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
Guns. Violence. Hate. Mental illness. Video games. Movies. Television. The Internet. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. The President. The Congress. The Judiciary. The Fourth Estate. We, the People. We, the Tired, the Poor, the Huddled Masses, the Homeless, the Wretched Refuse of Teeming Shores throughout our nation’s storied past. Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness. The Second Amendment. Laws. Weapons of Mass Destruction.
And, lest I forget, thoughts and prayers. I didn’t bother to capitalize those two words, even though What We Think and What We Say — whether to our God or to our Neighbor in the broadest senses of both words — are fundamentally more important than anything in the previous paragraph’s long list of nouns.
Remember how you felt when a telephone number was attached to your name for the first time?
I phrased it that way because times have certainly changed since August 1980 when my name first appeared in the Southern Bell telephone listings for Valdese, North Carolina. These days anyone can walk into almost any store and walk out with affordable phone service. Those phones are called “burners” because they’re so cheap and basically disposable.
We’re assigned so many new phone numbers so often now that one definitive 10-digit string is no longer burned into our foreheads as our own personal “mark of the beast.” For that matter, I’ve probably had 666 phone numbers in my life but am lucky if I can remember the one — or two or three — I have now.
In 1980, though, the process of becoming an official Southern Bell subscriber involved deposits, credit checks, references, and even promises to name all newborn family members some variation of Alexander, Graham, or Bell. That’s why there are so many Alexes of both sexes now, and so few Grahams and Belles, because ordinary folks couldn’t afford a second kid after they’d paid for all the long-distance calls to announce little Alex’s birth.
Yes, Virginia, there were long-distance charges back then. Long-distance calls were so expensive that we couldn’t just pick up the phone and dial up friends or family members outside the county whenever we wanted, sometimes not even within our own county. There had to be a good reason — like new life or death — to incur the wrath of the Long-Distance Operator, especially before direct dialing and calling cards were invented.
The flowers at our house have been beautiful since March, but the blossoms are slowing down as we trudge deeper, ever deeper into the dog days of summer.
I’ve always liked flowers. The daisy-like gaillardia or blanket flower is my favorite, thus the name of our website. On the North Carolina coast where we used to live, gaillardia is as common as the dandelion is in the Piedmont and mountains. So now, whenever I spot a bunch of the humble red-and-yellow blossoms at the Lowe’s Garden Center or Biltmore Gardens, I think of our adopted home in Brunswick County. For some reason, we can’t get gaillardia to grow at our houses.
Living with two gardeners — Mom for 21 years, then Timberley for 38 — has helped me appreciate not just the wildflowers and weeds that Nature brings us, but also the flowers, trees and shrubs we’ve planted ourselves: the camellia, Lenten rose, breath of spring, crocus, daffodil, sweet bubby, azalea, thrift, candytuft, yellowbell, dogwood, iris, snowball bush, sweet William, clematis, rhododendron, hibiscus, violet, moonflower, tea olive, peony, gardenia, echinacea, coreopsis, foxglove, dahlia, gladiolus, daisy, black-eyed Susan, nasturtium, hosta, butterfly bush, crepe myrtle, sunflower, marigold, phlox, rose of Sharon, and several varieties of lilies and roses, just to name some of the blossoms I’ve seen at our houses this growing season.
But this column isn’t just about beautiful flowers. It’s also about how we look at objects of allure — flowers, friends, lovers, heroes, villains — and what we see in them and in ourselves.
It had been a long time since I’d thought much about learning to drive on that long, winding country road of my youth.
As we get older, our attention turns to other, more grown-up concerns, like finding steady jobs, finding people to love and to love us, and finding good ways to leave our marks on the world.
Before long, we forget the thrill of being 16 years old and driving that old car home late on a Friday night, and punching the accelerator at just the right spot coming out of the last curve — where the patched asphalt dips — before the long straight-away up, up, up and then over the dimly-lit hill, then down the narrow two-lane blacktop, staying on the gas and off the brake pedal until the last possible seconds before that hard right turn toward the distant bridge, with tall, dark cornfields on both sides of this pot-holed rural byway running along the widening river near and far, but always within sight of the trees along this shadowy watercourse’s banks, as these streams of grayish water and lined pavement wind together and cross one another time and again, through the heart of this beautiful valley.
When we’re young, we take our chances — too many, perhaps, and too often. But when we’re old, we often play it safe and put on the brakes, maybe just a bit too soon. If we’re not careful, that’s how we handle not just experiences but also the people in our lives.
When my musical hero James Taylor started wearing a hat on stage a few years ago, I started thinking about covering my own bald head in public.
I always admired James back when he didn’t seem to mind letting his fans know he was losing his hair. Look at his album covers from the ’80s and most of the ’90s. Until his 1997 album Hourglass, JT didn’t try to cover his male pattern baldness, unlike, say, Elton John, Beach Boy Mike Love, Jim Seals of the popular ’70s duo Seals & Crofts, and countless cowboy-hatted country singers.
James’s lack of pretension when it came to his receding hairline was refreshing. It was honest. And it made his songs seem that much more true to life and heartfelt, to be sung by a man who apparently cared more about the depth of his music than the superficiality of his image.
Along those lines, I never trust any balding man who has the audacity to wear an ugly or cheap toupee, like televangelist and faith-healer Ernest Angley, or who sports a bad comb-over, especially really silly-looking or Aqua Net-dependent ones like Donald Trump’s perpetual swirly. Who do they think they’re fooling, anyway?
Anyone who knows me sees the irony in my 730-mile road trip for a bottle of bourbon. I’m not a big drinker of anything stronger than Mountain Dew, and even that is off-limits now due to its sweetness.
But there we were last Friday at 4:15 a.m. — oh-dark-thirty, as Timberley called it — backing the Gray Goose, our trusty minivan, out of the driveway and onto the first leg of Siri’s 365-mile route to historic Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.
We were headed northwest on Interstate 40 in the east Tennessee mountains when the sun rose about two hours later. We had already stopped at the all-business Haywood County (N.C.) I-40 Rest Area and, therefore, didn’t need to be officially welcomed to the Volunteer State at its fancier facility up the road.