Friday, November 8, 2019

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive this excellent publication here.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

John Recieves Henry W. Little Award for Community Leadership

a person in a suit posing for a photo 
What an incredible day! I was pleased to offer a very well-received presentation on rural economic and workforce development at the NCWorks Partnership Conference in the morning, and was then honored to receive the Henry W. Little III Award for Community Leadership at the Chamber Annual Dinner last night.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Harmless Indulgences

I was standing in line at Speckled Paw the other day when a customer in front of me ordered their "first pumpkin spice latte of the season" with great fanfare and excitement. Okay, I just don't get it. I have no problem with the pumpkin spice flavor, it's fine so far as it goes, but the near-religious devotion some have to it escapes me. Apparently, it escapes a lot of people, because If you Google "pumpkin spice hate" you will find that there are entire Twitter feeds, entire WEBSITES, devoted to espousing distaste for all things pumpkin spicy. 

Yep, that's where we are as a society; fomenting hate over a harmless beverage.

And it doesn't stop there. Folks are castigated on-line for a variety of perceived transgressions, from Magic: The Gathering game playing to watching cooking shows to buying lottery tickets. I have to admit I'm a little guilty of that last one, occasionally referring to the lottery as "voluntary taxation of people with poor math skills." 

You know what, though? Life can be hard; a struggle to make it through the day with our sanity intact. And if someone derives some small measure of pleasure, or relief or fulfilment from a high calorie beverage, 30 minutes in front of the TV or the incredibly remote possibility of winning a million dollars, why should anyone else care? Can we just let people enjoy their harmless indulgences without criticism.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Movie Review: It (Chapter 2)

Making a movie of the second half of Stephen King's novel It was always going to be more of a challenge than making a movie of the first half. You cannot rely on the charming "coming of age" aspects of the first half, and, more critically, you actually have to end the thing in a way that makes sense, satisfies the audience and provides a sense of closure. Andrés Muschietti clearly had a plan, but as Mike Tyson once said, "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Or, in Andy's case, the giant clown-faced spider.

It Chapter 2 is a good movie, well crafted and generally well acted. It is also long, clocking in a just under three hours. The special effects are, if not always special, at least competent. It stays within hailing distance of the novel while adapting some elements that clearly would never work on the big screen. If you are a fan of Stephen King and enjoyed Chapter 1, then you will also enjoy Chapter 2. But you will not love it. You will not walk away, as many did after seeing Chapter 1, saying it might be the best horror movie of the last 40 years. You will be perplexed by a couple of weird plot holes and one particularly annoying plot thread that comes out of nowhere, stays for about a minute and then disappears into nothingness.

Plop down your ten bucks. It's worth it. But temper your expectations and you are less likely to be disappointed.

If you don't want to see spoilers, stop reading here.

Chapter 2 starts off with variation of a scene that is in the novel, a "homophobic" attack on a gay couple attending a carnival in the modern day town of Derry, Maine. A couple of years ago I attended the Walleye Festival in my hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio and saw a gay couple very much like the one in the film. My thought at the time was, "boy, this town has evolved; in my day you would be bullied mercilessly for wearing a red shirt that the jocks thought had faded a shade too far toward pink, and here's a couple of guys holding hands on the midway." Apparently, Derry hasn't evolved quite as quickly as Port Clinton, since the Maine couple draw some unwanted attention and one of them gets thrown into the river where he meets up with a particular clown who's not the least bit concerned about sexual orientation.

In another establishing scene a little girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, is bored at a sporting event and starts exploring the area under the bleachers, and I think we all know how that goes. She has a birthmark on her cheek and Pennywise uses that to gain her trust and, well, eat her.

Mike Hanlon, the only one of the original Losers' Club to have stayed in Derry after the events of the first movie, takes note of these disappearances and of the fact it is 27 years since he and his friends originally "defeated" Pennywise, and the mayhem tends to come in 27 year cycles. He reaches out to his estranged friends, all of whom have largely forgotten about what happened, but come back to Derry at Mike's request. Except Stan. Apparently, he recalls enough to know he wants no part of this adventure and opens up his wrists in the bathtub.

The remaining group reunites at a Chinese restaurant and begins to remember. Mike says that he has been researching how to stop Pennywise in the event he returned and found the answer in a Native American ritual. I suppose my first question of Mike would be, if the natives had a ritual capable of killing Pennywise, then why is Pennywise still around? Unfortunately, no one else thinks to ask this. During this sequence, we also get a mythology-lite explanation of Pennywise's origins.

The ritual requires each of the group to find a token and they are encouraged to split up and search for theirs around town. This is a clever way to offer several scary vignettes. The teaser video which has been in circulation for a couple of months shows much of Bev's experience with the creepy lady in her old apartment, but each of the Losers has a similar arc which in total take up a good part of the middle of the film.

Ritchie's trek is one of the more visually interesting (involving a giant,murderous Paul Bunyan), but also one of the sources of confusion. At no point in the novel, the original miniseries or Chapter 1 was there any indication that Ritchie might be gay. Now, suddenly, we have a flashback which strongly implies that he could be. And it is left at that. It's like if in the middle of Jaws, we suddenly learn that it might not be a shark at all, but a rogue killer whale, and then it's not mentioned again.

Each of the Losers eventually finds their token and they again venture into the sewers under Derry to perform the ritual, which involves putting the tokens into an ornate Native American artifact and chanting "turn dark into light."

Okay, so here is why it is so hard to make a movie of the second half of the novel. In the book, a couple of hundred pages are devoted to understanding the weird mythology of Pennywise, the greater universe he inhabits and his arch enemy, a giant turtle who created that universe. It all sounds a little trippy when you say it like that, but in the book, it sort of works. There is, however, no way to translate that literally to the screen without spiking the audience's popcorn with LSD. So, instead, we get a watered-down mythology with a simplistic ritual and a Pennywise represented by a giant spider with a clown head.

Throughout the movie there are sly references to Bill, who has become a famous novelist, not being able to write a good ending. It becomes something of a meta joke, even repeated by Stephen King, himself, in a cameo appearance. It's all sort of whistling past the graveyard, because, if we know the story, we know we are building up to an ending that isn't going to work, cannot work.

In the end, the Losers basically insult Pennywise to death. Diminishing him by dissing him as he yells out that he is the "eater of worlds." Eventually, h is diminished to a frightening Benjamin Button-looking infant whose heart the Losers rip out and crush.

I don't love that ending, but I also have no idea how to write a better one, so I'm not going to criticize.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Starting Seedlings for Fall Crops

It seems like just last week I was writing about beating the summer heat.That's because it was just last week! But, I turned on the TV last night and saw an NFL game, albeit the Hall of Fame game, and realized fall isn't that far away and I needed to start thinking about my fall garden. Here in Zone 7B, we are 12-ish weeks away from our first frost, so it's time to start planting cool weather crops for a late harvest. In actuality, I started this process a couple of weeks ago, planting some fall peas, but this weekend, I am going to finish the job.

As a Square Foot Gardener, I don't worry too much about soil prep, I just need to remove the remnants of any played-out warm weather crops, mix in a trowel of well-aged compost from my compost bin and replant. In terms of varieties, I have a few options here in the Carolina Piedmont which are not shared with my friends and family back up north in Ohio. In addition to root vegetables like carrots and turnips, and frost resistant plants like spinach, my growing season is just long enough for a second round of brassicas; broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and a newcomer this year for me, bok choy.

The most daunting part of starting fall crops is germination. Many of the aforementioned plants will not germinate or germinate very poorly in the hot, dry weather of the Dog Days. It is best to start seedlings indoors and plant out at around 3 weeks. It is absolutely critical, though, that the seedlings be in the ground before the heat of summer completely passes. In these parts, it's into the 80s most, if not all, of September, so as long as I plant out before Labor Day, I should be okay. On a couple of occasions, though, I have been a week or two late to the party and it hasn't worked out. Once the temperature fails to get up past 75 for several hours per day, brassicas grow very slowly and likely won't win the race to the first freeze.

This new plant for me, Bok Choy (also known as some combination of Bok/Bak/Pak and Choi/Choy), is a type of Chinese cabbage. It can be used in three different ways at three different points in its lifecycle. At 3-4 weeks, it can be harvested as a baby green for use in salads. At 6-7 weeks, it's larger spoon-shaped leaves can be used like celery for dipping. And at maturity, around 8 weeks, the fully grown heads can be used in stir fries and soups. The particular type I am planting this year is a smaller variety that matures more quickly. I'm very interested in seeing the result.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

A Harvest Of Mistakes

It's the time of the year when most homestead gardeners across the country are or soon will be reaping the benefits of their labor. Those pepper plants we so lovingly nurtured in February are producing delicious sweet bells and hot bananas, and the tomatoes we hardened off before planting out in April are dripping with plump red fruit. But, there's another kind of harvest gardeners should be making at this time of year; we need to harvest our mistakes.

I like to say that homestead gardening is an iterative process. Every year, I try a few new things, whether it be new varieties of plants, new ways of starting seedlings or a different planting schedule. By mid-summer, I have a pretty good idea what worked and what didn't. The things that did will likely become part of next season's effort, while the things that didn't, the mistakes if you will, will be examined to see what went wrong.

The biggest change I made this season was moving the plant-out date for my cold-sensitive plants to the first of May. Our frost-safe date here in the North Carolina Piedmont is around April 20th, and, of course, I always try to cheat on that by a week or two. The result, invariably, was me rushing round covering and uncovering plants multiple times as nighttime temperatures sagged down toward the danger zone while daytime highs approached 70. I resolved that this year would be different and forced myself to wait until May 1st before planting my tomatoes, peppers and squash. Much of what I read indicated that waiting would have little, if any, appreciable impact on harvest, and I found that to be true. My tomatoes may be a week or so behind last year, and if I was growing for market that might be an issue, but for purposes of my own consumption, it's fine.

In terms of plant varieties, the newcomers are spaghetti squash and Mr. Stripey tomatoes. I built a new square foot box, complete with trellis, for the spaghetti squash and selected a smaller variety that I thought would grow well vertically. They started out like gangbusters, but the borers got to them a couple of weeks ago and they are pretty much finished now. I did get two nice squash from them, however, so I'm calling the overall experiment a success. I just need to deal with the bugs. The jury is still out on Mr. Stripey. It hasn't fruited yet, which is strange for a tomato in these parts. The location where I put it wasn't my best, though, so I thought maybe it was just me. I was talking to a fellow gardener yesterday, however, and she said hers hadn't fruited yet, either, so it may simply be that it's a variety which is late to set fruit. If so, that's fine. I'm getting plenty of tomatoes from my other plants and it would actually be nice to get a little late season variety. 

I also tried a new method for growing zucchini vertically and I'm going to call that a failure. Zucchini is a difficult plant to grow in a square foot bed due to its "umbrella" nature. My idea was to use a four-leg pyramid support in a 2'X2' bed with four plants. In my head, I could train the plants to grow out from the pyramid while maintaining a broad base for the plants to fruit. One of the plants failed almost immediately, and although I re-planted it, the second try never took. The other three grew reasonably well, at first, but as they got taller and bushier they became more unruly. Zucchini does not like to be trained and its relatively delicate stalks make it hard to force into a vertical shape. One of the three survivors stunted, possibly as a result of being shaded by the other two. None of them has produced yet, and although I think the two healthy survivors will ultimately do so, I'm not expecting much. 

So, basically two of my three "innovations" this season worked out. I'll take that batting average every year!

Beat The Summer Heat

The eastern half of the United States has been experiencing a summer heat wave over the past few weeks, and this prolonged period of hot weather has impacted gardens as much as it has people and pets. Many garden plants take measures to protect themselves from the stress induced by extreme heat and those measures typically result in reduced yields or even failure. Tomatoes and peppers, which were originally native to warm weather areas, adapt by shutting down flower and fruit production at temperatures above 90 degrees. These plants will also curl their leaves when they are stressed. This is a natural response which helps reduce moisture loss and is not an indication of ill-health.

Many cooler weather crops, such as lettuce, wilt in the heat of the day and will not germinate during the warmer months. There are several things the home gardener can do, however, to mitigate the damage associated with hot weather.

Like the gardeners themselves, plants need to stay hydrated in hot weather. This is especially important with raised beds and containers. The Mel's Mix we use for Square Foot Gardening is well-suited to hot dry conditions. The vermiculite which makes up 1/3 of the soil volume absorbs moisture and releases it slowly into the surrounding mix, allowing for less frequent watering and more uniform water distribution. Still, in very hot and dry conditions, Square Foot Gardeners need to keep a close eye on soil moisture, and be prepared to water frequently, perhaps as often as twice per day under very extreme conditions. An inexpensive ($10 or less) moisture meter can provide a more accurate reckoning than simply sticking your finger into the soil. One significant advantage to Mel's Mix in hot weather is that it is essentially impossible to overwater, so when in doubt... soak it!

The best time to water is early in the morning; dawn is ideal. This gives the plants an opportunity to absorb moisture before facing the hottest part of the day, and less of the water is lost to evaporation. Avoid watering in the evening, as this can lead to fungal and disease issues, but if you absolutely must water later in the day, water just the soil and avoid wetting the leaves and stems.

Gardeners also need to be certain that water is reaching the roots. In square Foot Gardens, this is rarely an issue, but in traditional row gardening or especially container gardening, water may run off or seep through the space between the soil and the container without ever penetrating the top layer of soil and reaching the roots. Building the soil up around plants to form a dam that keeps water in the root zone is an easy solution.

In the face of the reduced growth associated with hot weather, a gardener's natural reaction is to fertilize. Unfortunately, this just stresses the plants more. An inch of well-aged compost applied as a mulch will provide necessary nutrients while also lessening soil evaporation.

Under the most extreme conditions, gardeners may want to provide some artificial shade for their plants that don't benefit from natural shade. A permeable natural fabric like white cheesecloth suspended a couple of feet above the plants works well, but avoid anything that reduces airflow or serves to actually raise the temperature, such as a dark or impermeable fabric.

Follow these simple steps and keep your plants happy and healthy throughout the summer season.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Ocean of Storms Book Tour Ends On A High Note

My tour for Ocean of Storms concluded on Saturday with a two-hour signing at Main Main Street Books In Davidson. I specifically chose the date, July 20th, to wrap up the tour as it was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, an event that is very significant to one of the three stories in the collection. 

I had printed 50 hard cover limited edition copies of the book and went into the Saturday event with a little bit of trepidation that I would run out of books before the event was scheduled come to a close at 12:30. Of course, I also had some copies of my last book, Ben and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance, with me, but I would have felt bad if someone had made a special trip only to learn that I had already sold the last copy.

As I approached the 12:30 mark and began to pack up my wares, I was relieved to have one last copy left. Then, just minutes before the event ended, I sold that last one. It worked out perfectly.

As a side note, those of you who ordered a copy through my website but have not yet received it, rest assured that your order has been accounted for and your book is on its way!

I am currently making Ocean of Storms available as an ebook only through my website for $1.99. A couple of people have inquired as to whether I will be offering it as a paperback in the future. I doubt it, but it depends on how popular the ebook is and how many requests for a paperback version I receive.

Again, I want to thank everyone who attended one of my events over the past two weeks. I enjoyed speaking with you, sharing a little bit about my writing process and leaning a little bit about you as well. I particular, I want to thank my classmates from the PCHS Class of ’80 who showed up in full force to support me at my Port Clinton reading, and my fellow Main Street Writers who showed up to support me in Davidson.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

What's Your Mood, Dude?

If you were alive in the mid-70s, you probably owned or knew someone who owned a mood ring. These cheesy accessories featured a stone which changed colors, supposedly according to the wearer's emotions. In reality, the stone was a piece of glass with a layer of liquid crystals in the base. These crystals rearranged themselves based on the ambient temperature, causing them to reflect light in different ways and appear as different colors. Whether they could in any way reflect the mood of the wearer is highly doubtful, but it was cool, relatively low-cost technology in an era when simple four function "pocket" calculators cost the equivalent of $250 in todays money and the handful of existing "fax" machines took hours to transmit a single page and ran five figures.

What you may not have considered is that mood rings never really went away, they just grew up, got more capable and became liquid crystal displays. In fact, there's a good chance that you are reading this on a computer, tablet or phone screen that is the great-great grandchild of that silly ring you wore in high school. Now, if we could just find a use for those old platform shoes and bell-bottom pants.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Fix It, Don’t Junk It

Thirty-nine years ago this month, the teachers of Port Clinton City Schools went on strike. They wanted better pay--shocking, I know--and more say in curriculum and class scheduling. After two weeks, the school board negotiated a settlement which gave them some of what they wanted. At the time, teachers in rural school districts like Port Clinton rarely went on strike like their urban counterparts. Their relative success in the strike of 1980 paved the way for teachers in other small districts across the state, for better or worse. Although the strike lasted only a handful of days, I recall vividly the weird, often absurd, lengths the school administration went through to keep the schools open through it.

Unions were still strong in Ohio in those days, and probably half the students were kept home by their parent on principle. Since my friend Carl’s father was the superintendent of schools and my mother was a non-union cafeteria worker, I felt a responsibility to show up. Plus, I was a senior in high school, on cruise control until graduation and wanted to see how this was all going to work out.

The "substitute" curriculum the high school rolled out was based on short courses taught by decidedly non-educator "subject matter experts." To a large extent, this involved glorified book reports on popular tomes of the day. Some of these were valuable, a discussion of Bob Woodward's book, The Brethren, which was about the Supreme Court, taught by a local attorney, for instance. But it also included some laughable attempts. One that sticks out in my mind was called "Fix It, Don’t Junk It,” and consisted largely of students bringing in non-operational small appliances and watching as a guy who ran a handyman business in town fixed them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for more STEM classes and a respect for the trades, but this wasn’t really a class. The handyman didn’t teach us how to repair the items (which would have been useful) or even explain what he was doing (which would have been interesting, at least), he simply repaired them in front of us with an occasional off-hand remark like, “that’s really on there tight.” I'm sure some parents were grateful to get the old vacuum cleaner up and running again, but from an educational standpoint, it was pretty iffy.

A few days into the strike, Carl and I had had enough and decided it would be a good time to make some college visits, so off we went on a whirlwind tour of tiny, expensive private schools that Carl was considering and I certainly couldn’t afford. I was however, happy to eat free in their cafeterias and stay free in their dorms while being talked up by the recruiting staff. By the time we got back in town the strike had ended and normal school started back up a few days later.

It was a minor distraction that I suspect most town folk have largely forgotten. In fact, when I went out on Google to check facts for this post, I was surprised to find that there is virtually no record of it other than a brief mention an article about one of the union leaders, Nancy Dunham. Ah, Mrs. Dunham, now that's a whole 'nuther story.

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive thi...