In a confrontational mooooood

I’m still at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in rural Amherst, Va.. When you pull into the property from Highway 29, you drive up a winding one-lane road that goes right through the middle of a pasture where cows roam free — and sometimes stand right in the middle of the road and refuse to get out of the way.

This morning I drove down toward Lynchburg in search of (not necessarily in this order) Sunday’s New York Times and Washington Post, and a good, filling down-home Southern breakfast. I found both — the papers, surprisingly, at a convenience store in little Amherst, and breakfast at a roadside cafe called Dudley’s Family Style Restaurant in Madison Heights (where the menu includes catfish every Friday night and, ironically, cow brains with scrambled eggs every morning).

When I drove back to Amherst and the VCCA, this cow was standing in the middle of the road and refusing to budge. It just stood there looking at me. And I just sat there looking at it. The staring match lasted about two minutes, until the cow finally decided to step out of the way. Hooray for me, right? Victory for humans vs. cows once again, right?

But then I saw this in my side-view mirror:

The cow was giving me the evil eye! I think I’ll drive out the back entrance tomorrow.


A Blue Ridge Mountains morning

What with this powerful storm galloping toward the East Coast like the Four Horsemen unleashed, I decided this morning to do something I’ve meant to do ever since my first stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which is located in the Shenandoah Valley in Amherst, Va. — to check out that hazy blue vision hovering in the western sky, the remarkable Blue Ridge Mountains.
Heading toward the Blue Ridge Mountains along westbound Highway 60.
So I drove westward along Highway 60 — through desolated abandoned hamlets at lonely crossroads, over whispering streams and flowing rivers, past green cow pastures and through deep autumn woods, up roads that kept swerving and curving higher and higher on a seemingly endless climb, as I glanced nervously at steep roadside ravines and gazed up in wonder at the soaring forested mountainsides.

I never made it to my destinations — the towns of Buena Vista and Lexington –because, by accident, I stumbled upon a most beautiful spot that is at the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and crosses paths with the famed Appalachian trail. I pulled over and got out of my car, and this is what I saw from my mountain aerie perched just beneath the clouds:

It was so beautiful up there that something magical apparently happened and my soul has been possessed by the ghost of John Denver, which is compelling me to include one of his most famous songs…OK, I know, I know, but he does mention the Blue Ridge Mountains, and fondly and quite sweetly, even though he apparently didn’t know that tthey’re in Virginia, not West Virginia.

Walkin’ After Midnight (a Virginia Serenade)

And so the crickets chirp, but slowly, on this cool October night, and the soft autumn moon lingers over kudzu-draped trees. On cue, a freight train rolls along the tracks down over the ridge, barreling toward Lynchburg.

And Elizabeth Cotten sings:

And then, on cue, starts the coyote serenade, and I wonder if hoboes on that train tonight  hear that lonesome howl.

And I’m thinking that a song by Virginia’s own Miss Patsy Cline would be the perfect soundtrack tonight as I sit writing in my studio at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

And this evening has been as refreshing as a sip of sweet tea and as sweet as a magnolia’s first bloom.



Lucky stars, coyote howls and fellow travelers

1. My fellow traveler calls me from Indiana to report on her visit there.

She tells me she discovered — looked in the window but didn’t have the courage to actually go in — a 7-Eleven with an attached diner, with tables and chairs and waitresses and a menu.

She suspects this is a relatively new phenomenon. We agree it’s an ominous sign of the times. She tells me to be on the lookout for 7-Eleven diners when I hit the road in a few days on my way southward for an eight-day stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

2. Later that night she calls to tell me that she’s sitting in her motel room watching “Frankenstein” on cable TV.

3. She returns from Indiana the day before I’m off to Virginia. At dinner, I do my impression of Frankenstein’s monster  when he encounters the kindly blind man in his rustic cottage. You’ll recall that the lonely old man, who doesn’t realize that his surprise guest is a monster, gives his new friend a bowl of soup. a drink and a smoke. The monster, not used to human kindness, responds with happy grunts and heartfelt exclamations.

I do a damned good imitation of the monster’s “Smoke! Good!” and “Friend!” — right down to thumping my foot just like the monster does when the blind man plays a merry tune on his fiddle.

But I am humbled by the response, blown out of the water by a perfect imitation of the look on the Bride of Frankenstein’s face when she gets her first look at her green-complexioned beau.

4) Next night, I’m in Virginia, sitting on the front porch of my writing studio in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. No 7-Eleven diners in sight. It’s dark. It’s quiet, except for a distant highway’s hum.

I hear a high, lonesome howl and high-pitched yipping bark. A coyote.

Another coyote answers — and another, and another, and another. I’m starting to wonder where these coyotes might be. I hear a rustle in the hedgerow. I decide it’s getting a little chilly out. I go inside, lock the door, and Google “coyotes” and “Virginia.”

5. I find a National Geographic article which reports that coyotes have become prevalent and pervasive throughout the United States.

AND…Some coyotes discovered in VIRGINIA have been determined to be hybrids of coyotes and WOLVES. That pack howling over the ridge  may be half-wolf, half-coyote  — and bigger and more aggressive than ordinary coyotes.

6. I, of course, get my phone, bravely step outside my doorway, and call New Jersey so she can hear the coyotes too. But the howling stops, so we say goodnight.

7. I linger in the doorway. I think of another Universal Pictures classic: “The Wolf Man,” starring Lon Chaney. As that movie begins, we read from an ancient book which describes the curse of the wolf man: Even a man who is pure in heart/and says his prayers by night/may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms/and the autumn moon is bright.

I look up. The moon is just a half-moon. Thank God!

I look at the sparkling stars, my lucky stars, which we can see, coyotes and me, as we crane our necks and gaze up into the dark but star-specked Virginia sky.

“Rip” roaring along…more readings/book signings scheduled

Here’s an updated schedule of “Rip” readings and book-signings, all of them at public libraries in these towns:
This Saturday, Oct. 20, 3pm, Briarcliff Manor NY; Nov. 17, 1 p.m., Holland Township, NJ; Jan. 12, 2 pm, Irvington NY; Jan. 19, 1 pm, Peekskill, NY; Feb. 23, 1 pm, Beacon, NY; April 4, 5 pm, Port Jervis NY; April 22, 6 pm, Somers NY.

I’ll read excerpts from my satirical modern-day “retelling” of “Rip Van Winkle,” talk a little about my longtime affection for the works of Washington Irving, answer questions, and sign copies for people who buy the book, which will be available for purchase after the reading.

Quiet, please!

Quiet, please!

I remember, when I was a boy spending many hours at the main branch of the public library in my old hometown of Yonkers, New York.

Many QUIET hours. Signs around the library silently asked patrons to be quiet. If someone spoke too loudly, he or she was hushed by one of the ever-vigilant librarians.

There was a reason for this. People were doing things at the library which were easier to do in quiet surroundings — researching, writing,  reading, studying…thinking.

I’m sitting now in the reference area of a public library in New Jersey.

I can hardly hear myself think.

People  don’t seem in the least bit inclined to whisper or speak softly.  Teens and adults are answering phones. Babies are crying and children are talking loudly — while their mothers, apparently oblivious, carry on loud conversations of their own.

And one of the library staff is  carrying on a loud conversation with a patron who loudly asked her if the library has a certain book he wants to read.

Never mind the other question that popped into my mind: Don’t people know how to look up a book when they know the title and the author? They need to ask a librarian to find it?

Here’s my question: Can everyone please be quiet?

I’m not being old-fashioned. I’ve been in other libraries — recently — and every one of them was blissfully quiet and conducive to reading and writing and thinking.

I understand that people can be noisy. Sometimes a cell phone rings. Sometimes a baby will throw a tantrum. And I think it’s great when libraries are community gathering places, crowded with people of all ages and interests.

And I know libraries are now media centers and that there are no more card catalogs and that the time has long passed since librarians took a card out of the back of each book and stamped it with a due date.

I know these things and they’re beside the point.

A library should be an oasis of serenity. It shouldn’t feel like the Dewey decimal system has been replaced by the decibel system.

Quiet, please!

Where late the sweet birds sang

There’s haughty glory in October days. The regal deep blue skies, the cool crisp breeze which commands and demands our attention, the grand gestures, the rich royal colors…nature’s crowning glory. It’s my favorite time of each year.

But melancholy, too, has its time in the turning year. Leaves go from green to gold to brown. Hibernation beckons.  Fire gives way to ice. Soon enough we’ll crave the heat. No sweet showers pierce down to the root. The deep freeze awaits us — and (we are reminded each autumn) we can run but cannot hide.

Shakespeare knew this:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

The passing of seasons, love lost and love found, birth and life and death, and one last leaf which clings to the limb but then at last ungrips, gone with the gust, gone with the wind.